“Fitting into a community is what it really all comes down to”
Clybourne Park is the latest play to open downstairs at the Royal Court, written by Bruce Norris whose The Pain and the Itch also played here a few years ago. This play opens in 1959 with Russ and Bev who are selling their house in Clybourne Park, Chicago for a quick move, thereby enabling the first black family to move into the neighbourhood. This is not going down well with their friends and neighbours and tensions of all sorts are brought to the fore as threats are issued and secrets unfolded. We then flip forward to 2009 where young couple Lindsey and Steve want to buy the same house but knock it down and build from scratch. These plans also do not go down well with the neighbourhood and whilst change has occurred, the same tensions begin to emerge.
Norris wrote this play partly as a reaction to A Raisin In The Sun as a way of looking at how white Americans have dealt with issues of race in the past and how in this post-Obama world, whether anything has really changed. And he does it with such style and acerbic wit, it makes it easy to overlook the slight weaknesses in the plotting. One I cannot reveal because it is too spoilerish but waiting four years, really? Another was spotted by someone cleverer than I, with inconsistencies about US behaviour in the Korean War and the last I go into more detail about later in the review. I flag these up now because otherwise this would be a purely rave review as it is fantastic.
It is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, it is intelligent enough to demonstrate the complexities in dealing with issues of race from all viewpoints, black and white, liberal and conservative: we see the overt racism of some characters but even the well-meaning ones cannot avoid the pitfalls (Bev unable to see her maid’s husband as a friend offering a hand rather than a domestic servant, Lindsey’s insistence that ‘half her friends are black’).
I don’t normally like reviews which bang on about every single performance but the ensemble here are just so good, they deserve it. Sophie Thompson is simply outstanding as the hyper-real 50s housewife Bev: the opening scene with her and her husband having a conversation about the word Neapolitan and other such inanities is probably the funniest thing I have seen this year but Thompson also provides a huge emotional depth to her performance which elevates it from caricature to a truly moving portrayal as we edge closer to the truth of what her behaviour is masking. She is also scene-stealingly good as the wisecracking lawyer in the second act. Steffan Rhodri as her husband Russ, is so tightly wound I worried for his blood pressure but he brought an amazing tenseness to proceedings.
Martin Freeman is also excellent in both parts, skirting around the pressurised issues of race whilst trying not to reveal too much about their personal feelings and he has a great chemistry with Sarah Goldberg’s sensational Lindsey in the second half, their marital interplay is a sight to behold. Lucian Msmati and Lorna Brown play a married couple in both halves, bringing interesting dynamics to both couples in their wildly different circumstances, Msamati in particular displaying some great comic skills. And last but not least, Sam Spruell’s minister is another brilliant comic performance in a first half which is stuffed full of them. (Michael Goldsmith makes only a brief cameo so not much to comment on really, though he is good).
And on to my slight misgiving, which centres around the portrayal of one of the characters, Betsy, as a profoundly deaf person. I must stress that this particular Royal Court production, which indeed makes its point about the way in which society interacts with disabled people fairly eloquently, both through the way in which people relate to Betsy but also in the way in which several characters refer to a local person with learning difficulties. But slap bang in the middle of a comedy, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people were laughing with, or at Betsy’s attempts at communicating with the world around her. I am perhaps more sensitive than most to this issue as I am deaf myself, but I hope this is not the start of a trend of representations of deaf people being an easy go-to for laughs: earlier this month, Earthquakes in London featured a scene with a teenager mocking and imitating a deaf person which was raucously received. Still, maybe I am too close to the issue to have an objective view on it, I’m just being honest about how it makes me feel.
Given that the first half is nearly perfect (all the more impressive given this was the first preview), it is quite an achievement that the play comes together as an impressive whole. I liked the echoes of the dialogue from the first half reappearing later on and the racist jokes scene is perfectly played. Ultimately, I absolutely loved it, the performances are just consistently fabulous with Sophie Thompson reaching sensational heights, the set looks great and the work that must go on during the interval to effect the change is impressive. Crucially though, it is often belly-achingly funny and I just love the fact that it proves that Avenue Q got it right: everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes! Book now because this will sell out.