Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke launched his Sloane Square tenure with a production of Bruce Norris' satire The Pain and the Itch in 2007. Still committed to tackling the complacencies of bourgeois society, Cooke last night (2 September 2010, previews from 26 August) premieres Norris' new comedy Clybourne Park, which runs in the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 2 October.
Martin Freeman, fresh from his role as Dr Watson in BBC1's Sherlock, and Whatsonstage.com Award winner Sophie Thompson lead a cast that also includes Lucian Msamati, Lorna Brown, Steffan Rhodri, Sarah Goldberg and Michael Goldsmith.
Norris, an American playwright, began writing this biting social commentary four years ago. Influenced by reactions to the election of Barack Obama as well as by Lorraine Hansberry’s modern classic A Raisin in the Sun, a traditional American school set-text, Clybourne Park considers the development of attitudes towards race over time by juxtaposing the problems faced by Russ and Bev, a white couple selling their home to a black family in 1959, with the issues encountered by Lindsey and Steve, a couple trying to raze and rebuild the same house in 2009.
Fraught with separatism and suspicion, did Clybourne Park segregate the critics?
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - "Stand-out comic performances from Sophie Thompson as the truly desperate housewife and Martin Freeman as the glibly impervious Rotarian (‘Tell me where to find a skiing negro’) no way trample over the excellent work of Steffan Rhodri as the shattered husband, Lorna Brown as the maid or Sarah Goldberg as the blonde, pregnant mute. All find parallels in their updated counterparts, and there’s a link in the personnel on the contemporary housing committee in a property that is now a ghostly, run-down shadow of its former self. It’s an artfully worked and strikingly abrasive drama, killingly funny and beautifully presented in Cooke’s production, Robert Innes-Hopkins’ design and Paule Constable’s lighting. Looks like a smash hit to me."
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (five stars) - "Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park is an achingly intelligent study of middle-class hypocrisy. Shrewd about racial prejudice, territorialism and marital discord, it will make audiences of all kinds feel ill at ease. More to the point, it’s the funniest new play of the year... PIn Dominic Cooke’s crisp production, Martin Freeman is a delight as pedantic Karl and Sophie Thompson is spot-on as robotic Bev. There’s excellent work from Steffan Rhodri and Sam Spruell, a nicely understated performance from Lucian Msamati, a punchy one from Lorna Brown, and a bright-eyed freshness from Sarah Goldberg."
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - "Norris' skill lies in stripping away the polite camouflage of euphemism to reveal the racism of America, then and now. In 1959 the debate about coloured infiltration of a white sanctuary is conducted with staggering insensitivity in front of the black maid and her husband, patronised even by the liberal house-owners... Far from trading in stereotypes, what Norris is showing is that, even in Obama's America and in the age of political correctness, racial antagonism is exposed in all its rawness when property is at stake... I'm not equipped to judge the accuracy of his observation, but, in Cooke's excellently acted production, it carries enormous emotional charge."
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (five stars) - "The Royal Court has come up with a cracking satire about the nightmarish tangle of 21st-century race awareness... Our sympathies are tugged this way and that. Warning: amid the jocularity are some distinctly adult lines. You come away realising how neurotic we have become about racial politics, about property ambitions and much else. Like any really good satire, this story holds a mirror to our shrewish faces. Playwright Norris has alighted on the territorial instincts of even the most apparently liberal men and women. But I am worried that this makes it all sound terribly intellectual and clever-clever. It is a better play than that.”
Libby Purves in The Times (five stars) - "I spent the interval racked with worry that this play might decline in Act II. If that had happened I would have trudged heartbroken into the night, unable to write a word. No danger, though: it roared off again into the stratosphere, glittering and throwing off sparks... Bruce Norris' premiere is billed as a satire on race and property in America, in 1959 and then the present day; but it reaches wider. Norris is occupying territory somewhere between Arthur Miller and vintage Ayckbourn, and holding it triumphantly... As self-control evaporates, a series of challenges and abominable two-way racist jokes leads to dazzling cross-play in which everyone - black, white, gay, female, pregnant, patriotic - ends up offended. Nor is the old tragedy forgotten: it comes poignantly full circle to remind us that next to love and grief, all is trivial. You don't often come out of a comedy thinking that. Genius."
- Helena Rampley