Sunday, 29 August 2010

Clybourne Park and All My Sons Review


Clybourne Park
by Bruce Norris
The Royal Court SW1
http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/
All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
Apollo Theatre W1
 
Love Thy Neighbour
 
Two plays here - one a  masterpiece from a time when young men were reaping the benefits of the GI Bill  in the US and there was some aspiration to a Brave New World. The other (a preview performance), set in the 1950s and 2009, has, well, interesting moments  and might make a good movie, given some thinning down.  Guess which is which ;)
 
Firstly Clybourne Park in preview.
 
The first act takes place in a house in a 1950s’ white Chicago neighbourhood soon to be sold to its first black couple. The second act is in the derelict house nearer the present day.
 
Two of the male roles in Clybourne Park almost have a powerful resonance but the rest lacks the coherence and intriguing detective story feel of The Pain and The Itch, Bruce Norris’s last play for The Royal Court which did have two men firmly at the centre of the action.
 
Maybe Clybourne Park, directed by Dominic Cooke, was meant to be a first act of 1950s sitcom writ dark with the second buying into the harsher world of stand-up with supposedly beyond-the-pale material on race but, if so, this didn’t work for TLT.  There just wasn’t enough of a story.
 
There were glimpses of a more mature play with Russ (Steffan Rhodri), a father enduring after his soldier son’s apparent suicide, and Albert (Lucien Msmati), the husband of the family’s black maid servant (Lorna Brown). But the women’s dialogue is weak and the second-act self-conscious bickering of all the characters felt interchangeable, despite the racial references.
 
The American (or Canadian?)  lady next to me told me she was bored and TLT found it difficult to care about any of the characters or their opinions. The attempt to telescope the past  back into the present with mother /Bev (Sophie Thompson) and son Kenneth (Michael Goldsmith) in a final scene seemed a clumsy, last-ditch attempt to manipulate the play into the pathos and irony it lacked.
 
Ghosts of the past also haunt All My Sons, written in 1947, a  family drama but fault lines of money, family, community,  politics, state responsibility and war are also implicit.
 
An airplane manufacturer is blamed and jailed for shipping out, during the Second World War, “defectives” (that is defective mechanical parts not people but ambiguity of dialogue gives the play a deeper resonance). Consequence: the death of pilots in an industry as self-regulating as any pre-war Wall Street Crash financial sector.
 
Meanwhile the man’s business partner and neighbour Joe Keller  (David Suchet) escapes scot free. His family, albeit minus a dead war hero son, lives on in the same house ostensibly respected even after the very dubious court case. A pillar of the community, he joshes, with bankrupt morality, with a local kid (Ted Allpress) about setting up the latter up as an informal  policeman to oversee the local community (1947 was also the year Joe McCarthy was elected to the Senate).
 
And behind everything lies two properties, the surviving business partner’s family home and the unseen house next door where the local doctor (Steven Elder), whilst bemoaning not getting work in lucrative medical research,  and his nurse wife (Claire Hackett) have moved in smoothly filling the void left by the shamed family of the jailed manufacturer.
 
Unlike the talky and losing-the-thread Clybourne Park (which apparently was a hit when it opened in the US), All My Sons, directed here by Howard Davies,  retains its clarity as a family drama but, by the unravelling of the second half, there are hints of the disintegration and suicidal infighting within  the "family" of America’s post-war left as much as a critique of  the American Dream.
 
This is a compelling, many-layered play with wonderful central performances including Zoë Wannamker as wife Kate Keller where the arguments are part of the action, growing out of character, gripping throughout with, importantly, the power to surprise with the logic of its twists and turns.
 
Call me old-fashioned but TLT can only give a scraping-through to amber light to Clybourne Park for an intriguing idea while it's a bright green light to All My Sons.
 
Postscript
 
Apparently Clybourne Park is a response to Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry, the first play by a black woman and with a black director to be produced on Broadway. Incidentally, Ms Hansberry met her husband Robert Nemiroff on a picket line and they spent the night before their wedding protesting against the execution of the Rosenbergs.
 
TLT has never seen and didn't know the plot of Raisin in the Sun before attending Clybourne Park but it was based on the true story of Ms Hansberry's parents fighting a colour bar in a court case involving a house and housing association in Chicago in 1937.
 
The house in question is now apparently (according to Wikipedia) being considered for status as a listed building. Clybourne Park should stand alone as a play, but it strikes TLT knowing the plot of the earlier play may be an essential when seeing this new piece.





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