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Gruelling role: Cate Blanchett shines in Botho Strauss's dystopian take on West German anomie (Credit: Lisa Tomasett) 

Nature bestowed Cate Blanchett with lynx eyes, a generous mouth, graceful agility and a sexy growl of a voice. None of this seems to have held her back.

After an Oscar-winning Hollywood run, she is now co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, who bring Gross und Klein ("Large and Small"), Botho Strauss's dystopian take on the anomie of West Germany, to the Barbican main stage after rave Antipodean reviews.

The play is both absurdist (Blanchett's character is a needy modern Alice in Wonderland, wandering through a series of unfinished encounters) but reflects the underlying neuroses of German society of the period Strauss is writing about: after the post-war economic miracle and long before unification. Free-floating anxiety dominates: a family chain their garden furniture and barbecue to concrete blocks to ward off thieves, the intercom becomes a Cerberus at every door and everywhere there lurks the sense of something — perhaps divided Germany itself — unfinished and unhappy.

The director, Benedict Andrews, has removed a lot of contemporary references. That means we do not entirely get a feel of Saarbrücken and the snobberies of an unfashionable part of the country, inhabited by people who wish they were somewhere else, nor of the micro-snobberies involved.

Still, Blanchett's Lotte is aimless, irksome and engaging, lurching her way through what Heinrich Kleist called the "fragile furnishings of the world". It is a superbly controlled performance, veering between hysteria and observation of the foibles of, among others, a self-righteous husband, who has been predicting nuclear war for 20 years, "and all we got was peace, peace, peace", complains a puzzled Blanchett. Politically, Strauss ranks as culturally conservative for his views on the dumbing down of German culture and attacks on liberalism's failures against multiculturalism. Gross und Klein isn't so much about ideology as about modernity and its dissatisfactions. It's played with a conviction that sweeps us along, largely because the starry Ms Blanchett never lets up in a gruelling role — one star who truly shines.

 A decade before Strauss wrote his best-known work, Alan Plater, the North-East's unofficial laureate, penned Close the Coalhouse Door. The play (with music by the peerless political chansonnier Alex Glasgow) was written in 1968 and updated in the mid-1970s, when the worst thing a disaffected socialist had to complain about was centrist governments: "Nowadays they've got a craze/To follow clever Keynesian ways." 

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