Reading Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Love as flat-pack furniture, delivery by Minghella
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The Independent Culture

There is no loss, however unhappy, that doesn't benefit someone. And there's no doubt that the London premiere of Jonathan Lunn's Reading Room, a full-evening expansion of a duet that was pipped to win the Place Prize in 2006 but didn't, wouldn't have been half such a starry affair if it hadn't been for the written and vocal contribution, and poignant physical absence, of Anthony Minghella.

Lunn, whose friendship with the late writer-director went back 30 years, had been an unusual contender for the biennial choreography prize by dint of being in his fifties. His experience across a range of disciplines, including film and opera, was immediately apparent in the depth and seamless polish of his competition entry, albeit only 10 minutes long.

Entitled Self Assembly, the duet presents the usual dancer-couple accompanied by a most unusual score: the recorded voice of Minghella giving instructions for an item of flat-pack furniture. Clearly, it's really a lasting relationship that the couple are trying to put together, and Minghella's level-toned, imperturbable advice and warnings ("the components are designed to fit: please do not force them"), amusingly sheds light on the human tendency to emotional misalignment.

But it's the ingenuity with which each body tries and mostly fails to find an accommodation with the other that makes this more than a clever gimmick. In sequences of fluid and detailed movement – incorporating suggestions of washing and dressing and working and driving a car into a wonderfully athletic flow – sharp, stylish Carly Best and sensitive-looking Christopher Evans also manage to find humour and tenderness between bouts of deep frustration. The final image of the couple lying entwined together then compulsively springing apart – an action repeated over and over with maddening tenacity – is a neat kinetic expression of one of adult life's intangible mysteries.

The 2006 duet now forms the final section of the 90-minute Reading Room. I gather the intention had been for Minghella to provide text for the entire piece. As it turned out, Lunn has drawn from others' writing: a stream-of-consciousness of Samuel Beckett's describing the slow unravelling of a man's mind, and a more domestic Raymond Carver narrative about the final throes of an affair. Text by Billy Collins links these, and the whole lot is recited by an actor (on this occasion suave Juliet Stevenson), who remains separate from the dance while surrounded by it.

Variety clinches the deal. While it's all about connection and disconnection, the frame and scale and mood are in constant flux. In the sunny central section, 11 recent graduate dancers waggle their knees and butts and scratch their ribs in happy unison. After the Carver story, Lilou Robert and Chris Rook ricochet between blasts of grief, anger and temporary reconciliation. Between them all, small, sturdy Rachel Krische spins like a drill bit, marking out a determined solitariness.

Had Minghella lived, Reading Room might have been different but I hardly think better. As it is, it's utterly engrossing. It's touring, too: an accessible treat.



Nottingham Playhouse (0115 941 9419) 10 June; Merlin Theatre, Frome (01373 465949) 12 June; Malvern Theatre (01684 892277) 17 & 18 June; Oxford Playhouse (01865 305305) 20 & 21 June; Rose Theatre, Kingston (0871 230 1552) 22 June; The Point, Eastleigh (0238 065 2333) 27 & 28 June.

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