Closer review – Marber’s 90s passion play still stirs

Donmar Warehouse, London
Patrick Marber’s finely wrought 1997 play about the brutal business of falling in and out of love holds good in David Leveaux’s smooth if safe revival

Closer could hardly have been more fashionable in 1997. Patrick Marber’s tale of two men and two women, brought together by an escape from death, driven apart by the death of love, is not so much daisy chain as ring-a-ring-a-roses: it shows love as a fever and a plague spot. It became famous as a dating and a break-up play: people took their Significant O to it to tell them something. Watching it in the West End, I saw for the first time a couple snogging in the stalls.

I half-expected that its 90s chic would mean it would now look shabby. Not at all. The connections are still clever; the centre is more evident. This is so even in David Leveaux’s smooth but underpowered production, which lands all the exchanges on the safe side of savagery.

No one who saw Closer first time round will forget the bravura internet chatroom scene. On either side of a huge screen, two actors sit tapping away. One is a doctor, fending off his duty calls with one hand so that he has the other free for trouser work. The other is a languid manipulator, a bloke pretending to be a girl. The thrill of the internet pulsing into the life of stage may have diminished. The knickers talk – though fairly imaginative – is more familiar than it was. Yet it is still a stirring and more than ingenious scene: a graphic demonstration of an idea about human exchanges. The more frank the proclamation, the bigger the lie. Closer is about growing further apart.

Few plays have managed so persuasively to show – rather than simply talk eloquently about – falling in and out of love. Few plays have given such fizz to the disappearance of love. Scenes that begin in mutual passion spiral within seconds into ferocious hate. Marber makes it look inevitable. It is only afterwards that you realise the fineness of the triggers, the extent of the distance from beginning to end of a scene.

Oliver Chris is low-key hangdog as a defeated author. Rachel Redford, though appealing, never has the lethal innocence that made the character into a latterday Lulu (Wedekind, not Shout!). But Nancy Carroll marvellously makes manipulation look like candour. And it would be hard to better Rufus Sewell as the doctor son of a taxi driver who, as he dips in and out of the NHS, looks like a political summary of the period. His accent slides from crisp to flat-vowelled, his face fills out with smugness, and puckers with malevolence. Marber writes him both as dislikable and really present.

Closer is at the Donmar Warehouse, London until 4 April


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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