Bruce Norris' third play at the Royal Court is billed as 'a fable of free market economics and cut-throat capitalism' and is ambitious in scale: it has a cast of 19 and is set in New England in the years 1759-1776, with ‘a brief detour to the present’.
The familiar themes of race and social aspiration abound, but this time the satirical focus is squarely on the emergence of wealth and the desire to be better than your neighbour. In picaresque style we follow the fortunes of a young mathematical whizzkid, Jim Trumpett, who, despite the drawback of being an abandoned bastard child brought up in a brothel, climbs the social ladder – via a quick double murder - with a black servant who corrects him on his English.
If we don’t quite get the point about Western civilisation being built on selfishness, slavery, prostitution and greed, the second act brings us smack up to date, with a conference of financial bigwigs, smug in their own huge achievement, being challenged by anti-capitalist protesters and the withering question from the floor – which they don’t understand - of “How many houses do you have?”.
This scene, demonstrating the spread of monetarist values to Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, is beautifully pitched and shows Norris at his squirmingly satirical best. Jim Trumpett has now spawned Dick Trumpett, of TrumpettBank Global and has, in a sense, come to rule the world. The book he plugs is called, teasingly, The High Road, the low road of the title having been taken by his forebear.
This isn’t the most subtle of plays, and occasionally puts one in mind of the pioneering touring productions of the 7:84 Theatre Company in the 1970s, with all their hectoring invective and righteous passion, but Bruce Norris has the greater skill of skewering his targets with comic precision.
Despite the tales of under-rehearsal, Dominic Cooke directs a large, long pageant of a play with consummate skill, the proceedings presided over by the benign figure of Bill Paterson in the personage of the great Adam Smith. It is a splendid turn, but there are many performances to admire.
With 51 listed characters there is plenty of opportunity for contrasting roles: Elizabeth Berrington, Ian Gelder and Simon Paisley Day, in particular, are superb, with Johnny Flynn persuasive and engaging as the dastardly Jim, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the servant, John Blanke, the epitome of dignity outraged at its own mistreatment.
For all its entertainment value – and there were many loud approving chortles at press night – the play does, however, have an air of being rather pleased with itself, and it sets its sights somewhat lower than one might have expected. But even if its targets are easy, it hits home with relish.