The autumn season at the Royal Court opens with Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park
, which has sold out and is already rumoured to be following Jerusalem
into the West End. This American comedy deals with the issue of race by, it's fair to say, addressing the subject head-on. In Act One it's 1959, and we're in the living room of what used to be Russ and Bev's house, but following a recent event they've decided to move away, and the place is full of boxes. There's tensions under the surface but whole new ones arrive with neighbours Karl and Betsy, who bring news that the house has been bought by a black family, which Karl sees as the end of their affluent neighbourhood. The fact that Bev's black maid Francine and her husband Albert are present means the situation is even more explosive.
In Act Two the same actors play roles in 2009. The same house is ready to be demolished, having been bought by white couple Steve and Lindsey. Having gone through many reversals of fortune Clybourne Park is now an affluent, mostly black suburb. Neighbours Lena and Kevin are worried about what the planned new house will do for property prices in the area, but is race behind their concerns as well?
I'd heard many good things about the play and the first act bears them out, but things go to a whole new level in the second. Director Dominic Cooke has a knack for casting well-loved comic actors in darker roles, and after Jane Horrocks in last year's Aunt Dan and Lemon
, here he gives us Martin Freeman as the racist Karl, and then as the less straightforwardly villainous, but still able to be brought to extremes, Steve in 2009. The cast is excellent - the amazing Sophie Thompson steals the first act as Bev, with a rather mannered but pitch-perfect comic performance and some moments of real pathos; while in the second she's the very different but even funnier estate agent Kathy, prone to odd non-sequiturs and making drinking a smoothie oddly hilarious. What really struck me about the cast overall though was their reactions - Freeman is of course best-known for his deadpanning and he's on form here, as are Sarah Goldberg as Betsy/Lindsay and Lorna Brown as Francine/Lena. The centrepiece of the second act confronts the very idea of what it is to cause offense, as the neighbours' argument devolves into them trying to outdo each other with the most offensive joke possible. Not pulling any punches, the play makes you laugh as you can't believe what they've just said, but it could easily be lost in a lesser production; fortunately for Norris his script is perfectly served by the cast and director.Clybourne Park
by Bruce Norris is booking until the 2nd of October at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs (returns only.)