When he took over as artistic director of the Royal Court earlier this year (See News, 6 Feb 2007), Dominic Cooke promised a programming shift towards plays that shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the people who comprise the majority of theatre audiences, the liberal middle classes.

This new focus, he said, would be typified by the first play he chose to direct as artistic director, the UK premiere American Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch, which duly opened last night (21 June 2007, previews from 14 June) in the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs for a limited season to 21 July.

A cosy family Thanksgiving dinner for six. Someone - or something - is leaving bite marks in the avocados. Clay and Kelly's daughter Kayla has an itch and Carol can't remember who played Gandhi … The Pain and the Itch premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2005 before a sell-out run Off-Broadway.

The cast for the UK premiere includes Matthew Macfadyen (of Spooks and Pride and Prejudice fame), Sara Stewart, Andrea Riseborough, Peter Sullivan, Amanda Boxer and Abdi Gouhad. The production is designed by Robert Innes Hopkins.

First night critics were unanimous in declaring that Dominic Cooke has indeed delivered on his promise in spades, successfully breaking with the working-class, kitchen sink traditions more usually associated with the Royal Court. They hailed The Pain and the Itch as “savage satire” that is “wittily ingenious”, “devastating”, “abrasive” and “very funny”, and drew comparisons between Bruce Norris’ writing and that of David Mamet, Mike Leigh and, most especially, Edward Albee. All of the performers in Cooke’s “superbly acted” production were also singled out for praise, with Matthew Macfadyen commended for making his own break away from the type of screen roles he’s best known for.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Norris’ play, which is an abrasive comedy of expository manners at a Thanksgiving dinner, is the first show directed by Dominic Cooke in his own first season as artistic director. He has done a wonderful job, not least in reminding us of a recently neglected line in smart, liberal anti-liberal American dramaturgy that the Court has always towed … In its savage wit, domestic cruelty, highly polished floor, split-level white design and metaphorical use of disease, one is reminded most forcibly of Edward Albee’s woefully under-appreciated The Lady from Dubuque recently at the Haymarket … Not the least of Norris’ skills is the way in which he controls the shape of his play – the opening scene triggers a flashback of incidents – until arriving at its point of departure … This unsettling play leaves an audience with no consolation, or cause for optimism, whatsoever.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “This is a savage satire of the hypocrisy of affluent liberals. At its centre, there is a family Thanksgiving dinner whose hosts are Clay, an insecure, aggrieved house-husband (the superbly funny Matthew Macfadyen) and his spouse Kelly (Sara Stewart), a high-powered, bitter corporate exec. It's a moot point whom this couple loathe more: George Bush or one another. They are the kind of people who go into contortions of righteous social concern not because they genuinely care but because they want to feel good about their supposed beliefs … I thought at first the play was going to be no more than a superior, politically angled sitcom but, through clever, intricate plotting, it builds into a devastating indictment of lip-service liberalism … I don't see how Dominic Cooke could have directed this play any better. Highly recommended.”

  • Kieron Quirke in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Directing this abrasive, relentless and really very funny satire from American playwright Bruce Norris, Dominic Cooke delivers on that promise in style … The plot isn't so important as the character work that goes on around it. Kelly and Clay are modern-day monsters. Made guilty by their wealth, they get through by justifying their selfish desires with politically correct, touchy-feely waffle, then acting just as they please … Andrea Riseborough is hilarious in the role (of Cash’s European girlfriend), making every comic mispronunciation count. The smug and joyless Clay is also a great part for Matthew Macfadyen - a comic counterpart of all those over-serious alpha males he plays on screen - and the actor has him down pat, pulling off the trick of showing us Clay's insecurity without making him likeable. Norris has us laugh and sneer at his characters with the relentless misanthropy of the pure satirist. His is a gloriously cynical world view, with no good guys … The frantic action does get less exciting as the play goes on … No matter - the jokes remain plentiful, plus it's invigorating to see liberal guilt - which theatre so often panders to - subjected instead to merciless dissection.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Dominic Cooke is as good as his word. And, even if one wishes his first directorial choice had dealt with our native breed, Bruce Norris' play offers a wittily ingenious satire on the American brand of phoney liberalism … Norris's target is a broad one but he hits it plumb centre: these are the affluent middle-classes who fail to practise what they preach … As social satire, the play is very funny … Cooke's production has the right poisoned elegance, aided by a two-tier set by Robert Innes Hopkins that uncannily echoes that for The Lady from Dubuque. And the acting is a constant pleasure … This is a play that earns its keep on the Royal Court's main stage and dents the theatre's faintly puritan image … I just hope Cooke can come up soon with some big plays that examine our own native hypocrisies.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “In the first play he has chosen to direct himself, Cooke has hit upon a brilliantly satirical piece that gleefully skewers the values of the impeccably liberal rich … The play is American, which will give English viewers a chance to say: ‘Well, of course, we are nothing like as bad as that’ … At times, Bruce Norris’ satire is just a little too broad and judgemental for the play’s own good. But the writing is so entertaining and the structure of the plot … so skilful that I’m prepared to forgive the occasional heavy-handedness … At its best the play comes over like an ingenious mixtures of Abigail’s Party and An Inspector Calls, as the wince-making comedy of social embarrassment gives way to more serious questions of moral responsibility. Cooke directs a superbly acted production with the confidence of a man who knows he is on to a winner … This is a terrifically entertaining, sometimes disturbing play that asks uncomfortable questions about the way the West lives now.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “To the Royal Court, one of the temples of ‘progressive’ opinion, to find something notable and welcome: a satire on go-ahead, off-the-peg Lefties. Hooray! … It is not a a flawless work, mainly because it has numerous flashbacks … It also has quite a lot of bad language. However, the play’s satirical naughtiness makes it feel fresh and reminds one again how stale the Court’s old regime had become … All this is achieve with some excellent acting. Andrea Riseborough is outstanding as the pouting East European crumpet … Sara Stewart is wholly persuasive as Kelly, a tense bundle of right-on nerves. Peter Sullivan is handsome and suave as Cash. Matthew Macfadyen, so often a male romantic lead, is also to be congratulated on undertaking the part of the wet haddock of a house-husband Clay … Well done, the Royal Court.”

    - by Terri Paddock