Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Review Clybourne Park

Guest reviewer Francis Beckett encounters simmering tensions and outrageous punchlines in a revival of a hit American play currently on tour.
Clybourne Park
By Bruce Norris

Race Up The Housing Ladder

It's 1959 and middle-aged Chicago couple Russ and Bev plan to sell their home in middle-class Clybourne Park. 

They have never met the couple to whom they are selling when their neighbour, Karl, arrives to tell them that the family is black. Will they please reconsider the sale, for if it goes through, bang goes the neighbourhood?

It's fifty years later and act two. Many of Clybourne Park’s houses now have black owners. Yet Russ and Bev’s old house is again in the hands of a white couple who want to rebuild on a larger scale and are forced to negotiate their plans, sullenly, line by line, with their black neighbours.

That's the plot outline without giving too much away for those readers who didn't see the first UK production at The Royal Court Theatre in 2010.

For writer Bruce Norris is himself a past master in the art of withholding information until we are clamouring for it. His playwright's trick is simple but effective. Just when we are on the verge of a revelation - someone interrupts, with a delaying witless conventional piety.

From the opening moments, director Daniel Buckroyd's production from the Mercury Theatre in Colchester  is both painful and achingly funny. The forced jollity of Russ and Bev, as they try and squeeze what little life there is out of some very poor jokes masks, we later learn, a deep-rooted grief.

As Russ, Mark Womack gives an intelligent, carefully-judged performance supporting Rebecca Manley's dominant Bev – desperate, brittle, over-the-top.

We come to care about Bev and Russ, their courage and dignity in the face of hardship, despite our recognition of their instinctive racism imbibed with their mother's milk. 

Heartrendingly, Bev fails to comprehend the insult when she presses gifts on dignified and thoughtful couple,  black maid Francine (Gloria Onitri) and husband Albert (Wole Sawyerr).

“Ma’am, we don’t want your things, we got our own things.”

“Well, then, I don’t know what the world’s coming to.”

Meanwhile, we could cheerfully throttle Ben Deery's hyperactive Karl every time he explains laboriously how he has nothing against black people, doesn’t believe they're inferior. It’s just that – oh, hell, you ever see a black person skiing? That's enough proof for him black folks want to be different.

The same cast re-emerge as a later generation of new characters in the second act. 

Now Gloria Onitiri's Lena is fluent and sophisticated. She brings protracted jousting, as to what constitutes a racially offensive joke, to a crashing end with her own devastating quip, unrepeatable not only because it would be a spoiler, but also too shocking even for my own North London dinner parties!

Billed as a drama about racism, it's more accurate to say it's one about race, the relationship between races, burdened and hobbled by history. A marvellous play, faultlessly performed. A green light and a recommendation to rush along and see this production while you can.

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