Close encounters for train strangers

First Night: The unexpected man duchess theatre, london
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The Independent Online
YASMINA REZA must be the cost-conscious producer's and after-theatre diner's dream. Her last play, the award-winning Art, lasted 90 minutes and had three characters. Her latest, The Unexpected Man, takes just 75 minutes and is a two-hander.

Reza explores the intriguing concept of a middle-aged man and woman sitting opposite each other on a train journey; and in a series of monologues, projecting their fantasies on to each other, speculating about their new companion's life and lovers, and examining all too closely their own existence. Only in the evening's last few minutes do they take the risk of actually addressing one another.

For those of us who agree that train journeys can be erotically charged and that we hold imaginary conversations with strangers, Reza's concept is one that has been waiting to be written. She puts a further ingredient into the equation. The man, played by Michael Gambon, is an author, and the woman, Eileen Atkins, has his latest book in her bag. She has, she believes, been close to him for years. After all, she has read his books and can an author really have no link to his work?

As Atkins plucks up courage to address her mentor, the self- obsessed Gambon is thinking partly about the man his daughter is to marry and partly about which laxative to use to aid his "downloading".

The production boasts two consummate performances. Eileen Atkins can suggest enormous depths of sadness and longing while superficially twittering about long-past flirtation. And Gambon conveys a deeper melancholy in his novelist's obsession with the squabbles of the literary world.

Matthew Warchus's production, transferring from the RSC's Pit theatre, uses background train noise and haunting music to give this meeting that barely happens a dream-like quality.

But while the concept is full of potential, the dialogue (or rather separate monologues) does not engage as much as one would hope. The speeches seem too concerned with self-conscious cleverness at the expense of dramatic development. This will not be the commercial hit that Art was. It is a slight play, but also a beguiling one.

David Lister