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Unit 46
Published on Sunday, 16 August 2009

I feel the need to apologize. If you're a neighbour of mine, I'm sorry for that time I hoovered at half past seven in the morning; I'm sorry that I snore very loudly, and I'm sorry for anything, anything at all, which I'm doing wrong with the bins. For these minor irritations of communal life are thrown into focus by Unit 46, a play about two neighbours locked in a futile Cold War.

The play's gimmick - and it's a very clever one - is that, although the characters are both on stage for almost the whole hour, they don't interact with each other at all. You see, they're not really in the same room; what we're shown, merged into one set, are two identical flats in an apartment block somewhere in Australia. Upstairs, a grumpy old man occupies the Unit 46 of the show's title; downstairs in Unit 36, a thirty-something divorcee contemplates the loud ticking of her biological clock.

The unusual set-up leads to some particularly amusing choreography - watch out for the moment when they both, naked, enter the shower - and there's an equal amount of clever verbal interplay. Although the man and woman are, in fact, talking to themselves, their ramblings mesh together neatly enough that you feel there's a dialogue going on. But the lack of real communication is the theme of this play; from time to time she bangs in exasperation on the ceiling or he stamps, enraged, on the floor. And you suddenly remember that the conversation's an illusion - in this lonely apartment block, there is no true contact at all.

But despite the cleverness of the concept, and despite the well-judged, understated, near-flawless acting, I had one big problem with this play. In my eyes, it couldn't decide whether to be heavyweight or funny, and ended up not quite managing either. It deals with the big topics - loneliness, isolation, God - and while that doesn't mean it can't be entertaining too, the humour felt out of place and flat to me. I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I think this is one Fringe show which needs to take itself more seriously.

Because, as a serious script, this would stand up. Both of the residents have tragedies in their past, revealed in degrees as the monologues progress. He's a broken man, but he doesn't know it; I felt a genuine sadness when he emerged dressed for dinner - his solitary, microwaved dinner. Downstairs, her problems are more complex, but we discover by the end of the play that the two of them have more in common than it seems... and, in their own rather curious way, maybe they're communicating after all.

It's on a fast track to an inevitable conclusion, of course: the one we've seen in a hundred rom-coms. He stops being so grouchy, she stops being so proud, they get it together and live happily ever after. Or do they? Don't worry; I wouldn't dream of giving away the ending. I'll just say that, like so much of the play, the conclusion was surprising - yet rang all too true.

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