“What does a white woman and a tampon have in common?” goes the “killer joke” in Act II of Bruce Norris’s fascinating play that examines racial tensions in America, circa 1959 and 2009. This and other razor sharp jokes brought vividly to life the bubbling racism, which was direct and in your face during Act I, but kept deliberately brewing under the surface during Act II of Clybourne Park at the Wyndham’s theatre.
I found the play by turns hilarious, shocking and tension filled as it dissected racial tensions surrounding the sale of Russ and Bev’s home in white, middle class suburbia to a black couple. Underpinning this major event is the even bigger, more personal crisis the couple are going through. The emotional difficulty in coping with the anguish of their soldier son’s death.
This issue whilst not the main story, is nonetheless a key component of the story.
The play was set in Chicago, but considering the familiar issues explored, it could just as easily have been London or anywhere else in England.
In the second half the racial issues remain, but the significant difference is that is set 50 years ahead, in 2009 and in a predominantly black area. Now, a middle class black couple are in a position of power and are considering the application from a white couple looking to move into their neighbourhood. The same cast return adopting different roles, subtly skirting around racial issues until they can no longer keep up the facade and gradually their underlying racial and sexist tensions come out via the guise of telling ever more racist, sexist and crude jokes. These are directed at stereotypes of black men and culminate in the jaw dropping “what does a white woman and a tampon have in common?” joke that literally brings the action to a standstill and for the audience, results in a massive sharp intake of breath at the gobsmackingly blunt punch line. I imagine a certain Frankie Boyle would have been absolutely delighted if he had penned this joke himself.
It was ironic, that for a play examining racial tensions, there was a near total absence of non-white theatre goers in the audience. There can’t have been more than 20 black people (less than 3% of the 750 capacity Wyndham Theatre) in attendance on my night. Whilst this is nothing unusual for a regular West End play, considering the subject matter that’s quite surprising and a little disappointing. I would have to say this would appear to be deliberate on the part of the Playwright and Theatre and can be explained by two key factors. Firstly, the £40-50 average ticket price* (higher than the £35 2009 average west end show price) for seats in the stalls put the play financially out of reach for many and secondly, the total absence of marketing of the play to black audiences through black media and other relevant avenues, didn’t help in this regard.
Whilst it’s an excellent, intelligent play and extremely well acted, for all its award winning accolades and reviews, I didn’t find it quite lived up to the hype. For a start, the shrill, loud, put on, Southern American accent of Bev (ex- bunny boiler Stella from Eastenders) was irritating in the extreme and something that could have been toned down without weakening the effectiveness of her character in anyway. The opening of both the First and Second Act’s were also slow to get going, but once they sprung to life, they did so in no uncertain terms, with all the excitement , tension and anticipation of watching a group of middle-distance runners suddenly step up the pace as they jostle for best position, with the finishing line ahead.
A fine play from Bruce Norris that people will be talking about for some considerable time.
Clybourne Park runs until 7th May 2011
* 10 pairs of top price tickets are available daily to personal callers only for just £10. It's best to arrive by 9am as the tickets tend to sell out as soon as the box office opens at 10am.
- Michael Peters
25 Apr 11
Clybourne Park has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama which is highly deserved, although it's mystifying that one of the other contenders was 'Detroit' wich was so disappointing for what was probably our only opportunity to visit the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. It's interesting to see how a play, especially a comedy, will stand up to a second viewing, but Clybourne Park is still an astonishing achievement. The second act meltdown still had me crying with laughter, including THAT JOKE, even though the punchline is so familiar, even legendary. In the midst of the racial tension though the worst perceived insult is when Lena dares to criticise Lindsey's taste in home design. On a more serious level it is now clearer that Russ is selling his house to a black couple in 1959 not because he is a liberal but as an act of revenge for the way his neighbours reacted to his son's war crime and suicide. There have been a couple of cast changes since the Royal Court and both are even better that their predecessors. Sarah Goldberg and a very loud Sophie Thompson have been singled out for awards but this is surely a case of a brilliant ensemble doing full justice to a remarkable play. I just don't know how Bruce Norris can follow what is probably the best play of the 2000s so far but I am sure it will be well worth waiting for. Finally, on the subject of the Pulitzer Prize, when is a producer going to be brave enough to bring last year's winner to London? Mark Shenton is not the only person desperate to see Next to Normal again. - David Baxter
22 Apr 11
Was taken to see this for my birthday. It was totally engrossing. It worked and challenged on so many levels. Found it compelling, sad, funny, thought provoking, but most of all thoroughly enjoyable. Would like to go again, that says it all for me. - Mike Howard
11 Apr 11
fantastic, brilliant wonderful - jan rovier
08 Apr 11
Brilliant and intriguing play that lures you in until you realise the racial role reversal. Great acting and cracking dialogue especially in Act two - Tim Armitage
01 Mar 11
Yawn, yawn...,Coveney attention-seeking again by going against the flow. The new Jerusalem; a thrilling evening, even better on transfer. - gargar
13 Feb 11
Sophie Thompson is phenomenal!! Totally deserves the Olivier nod!! A great play...takes a while to get going but quite superb in its slow ambush as it draws you in. BTW....does the WOS reviewer (Michael Coveney) know the difference between a house and a bungalow? Apparently not!!
Also...is racialist a word....? Surely he should have used "racist"? Just saying... - South London
11 Feb 11
Glad this play came into the West End proper and well worth seeing. It was funny but also very meaningful too. Sophie Thompson as always was I think BRILLIANT in her part--she can move from funny to pathos so well. The rest of the cast were excellent too specially Stephen Campbell Moors (was so good in ALL Our Sons)and Lorna Brown whose joke about the Tampon and White woman was very funny--mind you now that we are so politically correct wonder if it would have been Ok the other race around?? Also Sarah Goldberg as the Deaf mute was funny and I don't agree with the WOS comment that it brought uneasy laughter--it was funny and you were laughing at the situation and not her as a person. Well done to all for such a good and enjoyable play. - Joe Spiteri
10 Feb 11
The Royal Court has replaced the Young Vic as my most irritating theatre. Not all its patrons live in Kensington and Chelsea so starting a matinee at 3.30 pm is inconsiderate at best. However, all is forgiven if all palys are as brilliant as Clybourne Park. I was in Chicago last week and a tour guide told us that although Chicago is now a well integrated city most ethnic groups still live in their own communities; China Town, Greek Town, Korea Town, etc. So Bruce Norris' incredibly funny play can also be said to be an accurate satire on racial and property prejudice across two time periods. He bravely confronts the truth that prejudice exists in all groups and communities but does so through an astonishingly funny script which contrasts favourably with the poor taste of Yes Prime Minister seen the day before. It would be iniquitous to single out any one member of a quite brilliant ensemble who deliver Norris' scathing prose superbly and with peerless Midwest accents. Clybourne Park has already been scheduled to follow Jerusalem and Enron into the West End which will provide an opportunity for a second visit to one of the best plays of the year. - David Baxter
02 Oct 10
It took me a while to get into this intriguing and clever play, but by the end I felt deeply satisfied by a very funny yet unsettling drama. In many ways, my reaction was similar to the same venue¡¯s Posh ¨C the reviews led me to expect a more straightforward satirical comedy, but it had so much more depth than that. There are many layers to this play, the first act of which is set in 1959 as a couple prepare to move home and the second act in the same house 50 years later as another couple are seeking to demolish it and rebuilt on the land. The attention to detail is extraordinary ¨C from Robert Innes-Hopkins brilliant sets to the nuances of the acting. I was captivated throughout and there was a roundedness to the structure which I just loved.
It¡¯s rare you get a set of seven impeccable performances, but here you get that and more as each actor has two very different roles. They¡¯re all terrific ¨C Steffan Rhodri morphs from bereaved dad to straightforward workman, Sophie Thompson from highly strung unfulfilled housewife to icy cold lawyer, Lorna Brown for servile to assertive, Sam Spreull from passive priest to gay lawyer, Lucien Msamati from quiet disbelief to assured confidence , Martin Freeman from 50¡äs racist neighbour to fashionably liberal and Sarah Goldberg goes from deaf & dependent to politically correct & defiant. Under Dominic Cooke¡¯s direction, these characters come alive and Bruce Norris¡¯ dialogue sparkles. The play¡¯s devastating message is that in 50 years everything¡¯s changed but nothing has changed. Clybourne Park is this year¡¯s Jerusalem and I suspect we won¡¯t see a better new play for some time. Go! Go! Go! - Gareth James
07 Sep 10
Loved it. Truly smart, hilarious and surprisingly heart wrenching. - LondonFan
03 Sep 10
so.. this is mostly well directed and acted, and well designed - and skilfully written - but - it's a very cold and misanthropic satire - one of those royal court plays where playwright and audience look down on the characters (who are, almost all, either stupid, or selfish, or both) and congratulate themselves on being more sensitive and aware than the people they're watching...
still, though it mostly left me cold (one can't feel any involvement with these caustic stereotypes) - and the racial questions aren't original (a truly original point of view, from anyone, might not leave those watching feeling superior), a fair part of the audience found it uproarious (all cruel laughter though - and often at the expense of truth..), so those who like their humour chilly might like it... - fred
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