“You do compete for the good opinion of society, do you not?”
*This review is a bit spoilerific so don’t read on if you don’t want aspects of the play, and others, to be revealed to you*
When people ask me to describe the plot of a play, I almost always end it with “…and then the aliens arrive” because that’s the way my mind works and generally speaking, it’s a safe assumption that the playwright won’t have gone there. So imagine my surprise when they actually arrived in the second act of Salad Days, it was like all my Christmases at once and because of the daffy silliness of the whole shebang, it was able to pull it off. Working in similarly offbeat surprises into straight drama is perhaps a more difficult job though and one which arguably has to work harder to make a success of it.
The scope of Bruce Norris’ new play The Low Road would seem to preclude the need for such an approach. A sprawlingly epic trawl through the growth of our (western) economic system told through the fable-like tale of Jim, an entrepreneurial young man roaming through an 18th century America whose single-minded financial knowledge and ambition prefigures the capitalist mind-set that is so familiar to us today. A post-interval modern-day interlude draws explicit parallels and connections between the actions and attitudes of now and then to reinforce its main thesis about the triumph of individualism. Oh, and there’s an epilogue.
My previous experience of Norris’ writing (limited to Clybourne Park and Purple Heart) has seen him conceive tensely coiled dramas spilling out of the domestic sphere but this is altogether grander and is somewhat reminiscent of the jump in Mike Bartlett’s work (comparing say, Cock to 13) both in the expansion of his viewpoint but also in the bagginess that has accompanied his arguments in the leap. For this is a overlong piece and one which rarely justifies the length of its set pieces – most often interminable discussions on some element of economic or financial theory over various dinner tables – or indeed its excursions into the unconventional.
It is clear from the off that the playwright is toying with the form a little, assisted by Dominic Cooke, directing what is his swansong as he prepares to leave the Artistic Directorship of this theatre. The first figure we see is Bill Paterson who takes on the role of noted economist Adam Smith who is the narrator of the story; Brechtian captions are carried across the stage to move us from location to location as the pieces of Tom Pye’s deconstructed design are pieced and repieced together; the G8-style panel discussion sees an entirely different shift in tone as the already hard-working ensemble take on yet another role in the giddy whirl of characters populating this world.
But it feels largely overindulgent and somewhat ineffective for all the effort it expends. The arguments of the play, as already mentioned, are extremely drawn out, killing any sense of pace that might be built up and little sense of purpose ever really emerges from the writing. The sharp edge of his wit never really comes through and instead some scenes are laced with almost Tarantino-esque levels of provocation over race or disability which bait audiences rather than helping them to explore these issues.
Casting-wise lot will hinge on one’s own opinion of Johnny Flynn as he plays the main protagonist Jim with a whiny truculence and petulance (albeit an amusingly anachronistic profanity) that I found extremely hard to watch – not all of it felt like acting… And though there is good work all around him – the ever-reliable Ian Gelder and John Ramm, a resolute Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, an impassioned Ellie Kendrick and a genuinely hilarious Elizabeth Berrington “did anyone have the halibut?” – the constituent parts never coalesce into a satisfying whole. Those hoping for smooth passage along The Low Road may find a rocky path instead, but this should not diminish the many and considerable achievements that have characterised Cooke’s tenure at this theatre.