American playwright Bruce Norris’ satirical racialist drama Clybourne Park – such a big hit at the Royal Court last year, and already named Best Play by the Evening Standard and the Critics’ Circle – does not seem such a big deal, after all, in its transfer to Wyndham’s.

Maybe it’s just one of those plays you don’t need to see a second time. Maybe it wasn’t really that funny first time around. Maybe there’s nobody famous in it. And the conceit of having a second act set fifty years later in the same 1959 Chicagoan bungalow is not all that innovative.

The dead Korean veteran whose parents are torn apart in the first act returns at the end of the play, to haunt premises appropriated by a black ghetto after the white “ruling party” checked out.

But similar social consequences have been addressed far more imaginatively, in parallel circumstances, by Tom Stoppard in Arcadia and Mike Leigh in It’s a Great Big Shame. The theme of geographical invasion is over-engineered: turns out, the black housing committee member is a great niece of the first act house maid.

There are two cast changes: Stuart McQuarrie, absolutely magnificent, is now the bereaved father of the first act and the embroiled workman of the second, while Stephen Campbell Moore makes a good job of replacing the more brilliantly funny Martin Freeman as the redneck Rotarian, though I note he says “a tad overweight” and “a tad unreasonable” in either act and this is surely a tad too much on the solecism front.

Olivier award-nominated Sophie Thompson swoops and dithers hilariously as a suburban gorgon and acidic bourgeoise, though she makes less differentiation between them than before. And Sam Spruell as the vicar, Sarah Goldberg as a deaf mute – butt of much uneasy laughter – and Lorna Brown and Lucian Msamati as a married “slave” couple who exact some sort of updated revenge, are all terrific.

But the play depends for take-off, finally, on some outrageous joke-spinning in the last quarter: and it may be the case that  Clybourne Park is remembered, if at all, as the one where a black woman asked why a white woman was like a tampon, and got a reply I couldn’t possibly repeat on a family website.

Dominic Cooke’s direction is smart and sassy, and Robert Innes Hopkins’ design, beautifully lit by Paule Constable, is magically transformed from a place to live in to a place to fight over. But I’m not convinced the play is as good as I first thought it was: perhaps, at the Court, it was just a delightful surprise.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from 2 September 2010, and this production's premiere at the Royal Court

As in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, or Mike Leigh’s It’s a Great Big Shame!, American playwright Bruce Norris’ lacerating new comedy paints the present over the past in the same location and finds echoes and ironies in the passage of history between four walls.

It’s a stunningly well written and crafted history play, a worthy follow-up to Norris’ The Pain and the Itch with which Dominic Cooke so notably began his Royal Court regime three years ago.

And it detonates uncomfortably revealing racist jokes and paybacks across the decades as a once white housing community is invaded, fifty years later, by white middle-class home-seekers in a black ghetto on the same patch.

The first act in the Chicagoan bungalow on Clybourne Street in 1959 is an acrid suburban farce, a marriage torn apart by the death of a son in the Korean War, with neighbourly intrusions from the vicar, a racist Rotarian and his deaf wife and the bullish husband of the black housemaid.

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.