A Girl in a Car with a Man, Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London

Journey to the end of sight
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The alienation that comes from encountering life through a lens - that's the theme of A Girl in a Car with a Man, Rob Evans's flawed but intriguing play at the Theatre Upstairs. In Joe Hill-Gibbins's eerily involving in-the-round production, live surveillance images of people in the Royal Court bar, passers-by in the street and punters taking their seats flash up on the monitors dominating the space. Then there's a rasp of static and we're presented with the deeply distressing CCTV footage of a little girl on her way home from school in a London street. A man approaches her; she places a trusting hand in his and skips down with him to his car. Played over and over again, the image of that abduction haunts the rest of the proceedings.

Evans's drama unfolds in three separate stories of lost souls on a rainy evening shortly after the crime. It conjures up a world where, though there are increasingly few "blind spots", or places where we don't come under the gaze of a camera, a child can still disappear. The opportunities for observation have crazily multiplied, it suggests, but our ability to look at ourselves and at one another may well be atrophying.

Stella (excellent Claudie Blakley), a fame-hungry Shopping Channel presenter from London, seeks refuge at the Scottish home of David, a former photographer (the broodingly intense Mark Bonnar), claiming to have crashed her car in the rising floods. It turns out that she is on the run after a moment of spiritual crisis that she experienced in the television studio earlier in the day as she was singing the praises of an absurd state-of-the-art pitchfork. "There could be no one out there," she suddenly thought. "Just me talking to nothing." This was, after all, a Friday afternoon and on a specialist channel.

The idea that cameras disconnect us from each other is developed through Alex, a gay Irish narcissist mesmerically played by Andrew Scott. He films himself giving us a blow-by-blow account of a triumphalist night out clubbing and he monitors the effect that he is producing with such diabolical calculation that it looks like a case of rampant égoisme à deux between himself and the machine. No one else can compete. Meanwhile, David, whose reserve thaws a little under the influence of Stella, brings out albums of photographs of his dead girlfriend and decides that he was so busy getting an angle on her that "she slipped away round the side". Now, with her memory fading, he wishes that he had seen her properly.

The trouble with the piece is that the characters have hardly any life that is surplus to the requirements of illustrating Evans's thesis. This is especially true of Paula, the woman in the CCTV control room, who becomes so obsessed with combing the tapes for clues that she neglects her own wailing baby and then winds up racing in her nightdress through the wet, dark streets to the river, hoping to find a crowd at the dredging and that sense of community that seems to come these days only when the media have whipped up a dubious sense of collective grief. It's a piece, though, that's too genuinely unsettling to shrug off.

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