Review - 'Clybourne Park' at Royal Court Theatre 2010
When the first black president moved into the White House, I suspect the event triggered inspiration in the mind of actor/writer Bruce Norris, and possibly reminded him of a play about a black family moving into a white neighbourhood. Well, I don't know exactly how Mr Norris got the idea for this play, but it seems a pretty likely explanation.
The play develops themes and the story from the 1959 play entitled 'A Raisin In The Sun' by Lorraine Hansberry which describes the experiences of a black family, the Youngers, who sought to buy a home in an exclusively white neighbourhood called Clybourne Park, which is where Mr Norris found his title.
The two acts of 'Clybourne Park' are set 50 years apart. In the first act, it's 1959 and Russ (Steffan Rhodri) and Bev (Sophie Thompson) are packing up their belongings to move to a new house. They've sold their home at a knock-down price which – unbeknown to them – has enabled a black family to buy in an exclusively white neighbourhood. This doesn't go down well with the locals who fear that, as a result, their own homes will depreciate in value. Act 2 takes place in 2009. In the intervening years, the area has become an entirely black neighbourhood, and the original house has fallen into disrepair. White couple Steve (Martin Freeman) and Lindsey (Sarah Goldberg) intend demolishing it and building a new one on the site.
Robert Innes-Hopkins's set for act 1 is homely in a way that reminds one of old films or commercials from the 50s. But, by the time act 2 arrives, the house – though it has exactly the same layout and structure - has become gloomily derelict. The transformation between the two acts is quite astonishing - a veritable triumph in set design and execution.
Casting an eye over the first few pages of the script didn't exactly fill me with eager anticipation. Frankly, I found it a little bland. But that perception rapidly changed when the actors began to deliver it - which just goes to show that reading a play and having it acted for you by a professional cast are quite different matters. The cast here have two sets of roles for the two acts. But though the characters are different in the second act, Bruce Norris cleverly integrates similarities between each actor's roles, and not just in terms of their race. For instance, Steffan Rhodri's Russ is pretty much a down-to-earth, stalwart, guy-next-door kind of person in act 1, and in act 2 he is a builder who is preparing the foundations for the new house and has similar character traits.
The performances from a very fine cast, are quite simply superb. In particular, Sophie Thompson's housewife, Bev, is a study in homely domesticity and has a wonderful way of gaping with her mouth wide open in anticipation. And Martin Freeman's excellent Karl and Steve both have the ability to prolong an argument long after it should have ended. In some of the characterisations – most notably Bev and Jim, the minister - there's an element of cartoon, or perhaps the style of B movies from the 1950s.
Though it starts off rather gently – both in terms of pace and humour – 'Clybourne Park' very quickly picks up speed and emotional intensity. So much so that by the second half it becomes hilarious, with some very risqué – some would say bad-taste – jokes, which had the audience almost in stitches. There is a hint of sentimentality in the ending, but the remainder of the play is enormously rich and compelling, thanks to Dominic Cooke's brilliantly-paced direction that ably matches Bruce Norris's witty and intelligent script, which turns out to be anything but bland!
"Excellently acted production...Norris's play nails the thorny subject of race relations with a bilious zest that takes one's breath away"
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Dominic Cooke’s superb production deftly negotiates the play’s amazing mixture of edgy humour and deeper feeling."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
" The funniest new play of the year...This is thrillingly provocative theatre."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The Royal Court has come up with a cracking satire about the nightmarish tangle of 21st-century race awareness.
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Clybourne Park is a hilarious and transgressive play that questions racial stereotypes and plays wicked games with political correctness.
Aleks Sierz for The Stage