'Closer' review — 25 years on, Patrick Marber's play struggles to connect

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

It might seem odd for a play called Closer to receive a production keen on distancing the material from the audience. But that’s the perverse effect of this 25th-anniversary remounting of Patrick Marber’s era-defining play, which I saw in its original London and Broadway bows and in revival in 2015 at the Donmar.

Directed by Clare Lizzimore, whose close affiliation with the writer Mike Bartlett (Cock, Bull) suggests an affinity for comparably scabrous drama, Marber’s play is here given a performative edge.

That outside-the-box concept allows for onstage musicians, a choric quartet who shadow the action, and interpolated songs from the period that are given to Alice (Ella Hunt), the damaged stripper who here suggests a rock chick on furlough from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The result makes it more difficult to connect with a play that can be forbidding at the best of times, given the sketchy nature of both female characters and the troubling vibes given off by its two, more fully realised men. Back in 1997, the sheer ferocity of the text, and of Marber’s original production, had a poleaxing effect that may be impossible to replicate: the discourse at large now is so debased, whether via text or in person, that what once seemed shocking onstage can merely seem a modern-day Twitter-sphere tirade. You bristle, sure, at assertions that the heart is “a fist wrapped in blood”, but the blow to the jugular once posed by such language has been perhaps inevitably tempered by time.

One way to restore its potency might lie in the x-ray excavation of text preferred by Jamie Lloyd’s current West End Seagull, where we get so inside the characters’ thoughts that the feeling is almost voyeuristic. Instead, Lizzimore has encouraged a declamatory, Brechtian aesthetic, as if the play were happening to some degree in inverted commas rather than seeming ripped from the gut.

The prize performance this time out belongs to Ella Hunt, cast in the tricky part of the mysterious Alice, the pole-dancer whose overriding moves are in the direction of mortality. Rescued from an accident at the play’s start by an obituarist called Dan (Jack Farthing, his long hair tied back, or not, as the action proceeds),

Alice is the sort of siren who might invite others to their own doom were she not so hellbent on her own self-immolation: Hunt, a stage newbie, transmits a compelling child-woman vibe, alongside a knockout singing voice that should serve her well going forward.

Employed in what is wryly termed “the dying business”, Dan ends up in a shifting roundelay of affections that suggests Noel Coward crossed with David Mamet — the difference being that there’s not much left private here about the sexual engagement of four people who weave in and out of one another’s lives, and beds, demanding intimate details about their various assignations as the indiscretions (and years) pass.

The gathering nihilism of this play has always been a challenge, and the brilliance of Marber’s own approach to his text was to monitor throughout the wounded hearts that lay beneath the savagery and hurt. The accretion of pain is less in evidence here, where you note, instead, the absence of information about the photographer Anna (Nina Toussaint-White), who anatomises people in her way just as the doctor Larry (Sam Troughton) does in his.

Possibly the play’s plum assignment (Clive Owen got an Oscar nod for this role onscreen), Larry has about him an incel-like savagery that hints at the grievously thin layer separating man and beast. “I am a f***ing caveman,” Larry roars at one point in a moment that should freeze the blood.

But Troughton – a 2015 alum of Bartlett’s one-act play, Bull – is possibly too polite to spear the coarseness underlying the apparent civility of a man whose professional interest in the health of others exists at odds with his intention on doing harm.

And whilst one welcomes the absorption into the Lyric fold of four trainees from the theatre’s Springboard initiative, their inclusion seems ill-suited to the forensic power of a play that needs to pull us into its tangled and terrible web. Hunt’s performance remains the take-away topic of the night, even as the play around her this time out seems wrongly titled: this is Closer presented as if it were actually titled Further.

Closer is at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre to 13 August. Book Closer tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Closer (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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