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Clybourne Park at the Park Theatre – review

The Off-West End revival runs until 23 April

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Michael Fox, Eric Underwood, Aliyah Odoffin, Andrew Langtree and Katie Matsell in Clybourne Park
© Mark Douet

Staging Clybourne Park 12 years since its premiere (this production, marking the tenth anniversary, was delayed by you-know-what) is likely to evoke mixed reactions. As writer Bruce Norris acknowledges in a programme note, the play has been subject to boycotts in the US, and even sparked at least one response play to "correct its shortcomings".

But whatever your view of its politics, there can be no doubting that Norris's willingness to dive headfirst into the thorny issues of race and gentrification makes for seminal drama. And, over a decade after it first appeared, the territory it explores has only become more topical, particularly in light of Black Lives Matter and the ever-spiralling property crisis.

The two acts, set 50 years apart, take place in a house in the fictional Chicago suburb created by Lorraine Hansberry in A Raisin in the Sun. They directly mirror each other. In the first, we meet a middle-aged couple who are moving out of the property following a family tragedy. The news it is being purchased by a Black family is revealed by a concerned (read racist) neighbour Karl, a character from Hansberry's play, precipitating an almighty row.

Half a century later, in 2009, we witness a gathering in the same address to discuss the development plans of a white couple, who have identified the now predominantly Black area as a property hotspot. Among the attendees is a family member of the buyers from the first act, who fears for the community's changing identity. Surprise surprise, the meeting does not go smoothly.

Oliver Kaderbhai's production fizzes with energy and features a top-notch ensemble. Richard Lintern and Imogen Stubbs are deeply affecting in the first act as the troubled couple Russ and Bev, whose son, lost to suicide, is a ghost that stalks the evening. Karl is entertainingly played by Andrew Langtree as a man constantly on the brink of losing it; he also plays Steve, the new owner of the house, who is similarly highly strung, particularly when goaded into telling racist jokes. Steve's wife Lindsey is superbly rendered by Katie Matsell, the epitome of liberal hypocrisy ("half my friends are Black"), who doubles as Karl's Deaf wife Betsy and steals some of the evening's biggest laughs in the process.

Aliyah Odoffin impresses as both the put-upon family maid, Francine, and Lena, whose delivery of a joke about white women and tampons is a highlight of the second act. Former ballet dancer Eric Underwood makes an assured stage acting debut as Francine's stoic husband Albert and Kevin, who enjoys skewering Steve and Lindsey's hypocrisies. And Michael Fox provides a good foil as both a prevaricating reverend and a gay lawyer; he also poignantly bookends the evening as the soldier son.

Watching this revival, it struck me how Norris's Pulitzer-winner owes a great debt to the drawing room farce. It is comically convenient how these disparate characters end up arguing in a room together, twice. But as with farce, therein lies its pleasure; it's like observing a perfectly choreographed brawl. James Turner's economic set design nicely plays into this, the front door and the stairs becoming important players in their own right. And although at times the production perhaps strains a little too hard for laughs, it's entirely forgivable when the material is so rich.