This double bill of plays by veteran English playwright Martin Crimp pairs an old work, Definitely the Bahamas, with a new one, Play House. It marks Crimp’s directorial debut and his return to the theatre that nurtured many of his early plays.

Play House is the story of Simon and Katrina, a young couple setting up home. They clean the fridge, assemble a table and have acrobatic sex. But as they adopt baby voices and bait the neighbours, we gather that they are not so much establishing a new place to live in as playing at doing so.

Crimp dispatches any sense of normality in the first scene, when Katrina offers Simon a dog turd as a gift. The lovers’ only reality, it becomes clear, is inside the “play house” they have constructed for themselves; when the outside world encroaches, it feels sinister, the more so for not being seen. Not that home is much safer: over 13 rapid scenes, the lovers are driven to dance – or duel – by what seems to be a crushing ennui, one that pushes their relationship to the brink.

Crimp’s language is brutal and witty and the actors perform with gusto. Too much gusto, now and then, but Obi Abili is a strong and tender foil to Lily James’s dainty but venomous scorpion.

Definitely the Bahamas, which was first performed on BBC Radio 3 in 1987, is staged as a live radio broadcast – a performance within a performance. Frank and Milly, a middle-aged couple, sit in front of microphones and set about eulogising their “charming” son, Michael, who remains absent.

But Michael is not so charming, we learn. In fact he is sexually abusive, as Marijke, the couple’s Dutch lodger (also played by James), reveals without ever spelling out what he has done to her. Nor are Frank and Milly quite as nice as their veneer would suggest. Prejudice is rife in this family but nastiness is swept under the suburban carpet. They share their petty jokes and anecdotes and every time we laugh, somehow we collude with them. (The biggest laugh of the night was for the most xenophobic joke.) Kate Fahy is wickedly funny and light of touch as Milly and Ian Gelder is in perfect, languorous command as a low-key Frank.

Neither of these couples will end up happy, you suspect, but Crimp is kinder to his audience: these snapshots of morbid domesticity are never tiresome. He sucks us in and never lets us settle.

4 stars

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