CLYBOURNE PARK
Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2
Opened 8 February, 2011
*****

I have observed before that one of the most delicious sounds in a theatre is that of an audience falling totally silent. Clybourne Park offers just as delicious an opposite: an instant – two, in fact – of uproar in the audience whilst the six people onstage are all speechless. These astounding moments bookend an escalating dare-contest of jokes on the taboo subject of race, as an architectural/community consultation in a Chicago neighbourhood comes to turn on the matter of skin colour.
    
Reviews of Bruce Norris’s scalpel-sharp play on its Royal Court opening last autumn were unanimous in praise of its intelligence and audacity. In Lorraine Hansberry’s watershed 1959 drama A Raisin In The Sun, a black family arrange to buy a house in the white district of Clybourne Park and are visited by a local panjandrum who attempts to pay them off. In Norris’s first act, we see the sellers of that house facing the same pressure; arguments grow more heated as their black housemaid and her husband look on in excruciation. After the interval, 50 years on in the same now derelict front parlour, a white couple planning to tear down and rebuild the property are in discussion with lawyers and representatives of the now largely black community. Again, it takes time and tactlessness for the real issue to surface, when the last shreds of diplomacy are thrown to the winds of the Windy City. Norris weaves motifs through his play and orchestrates matters sensitively… but not at all gently. For the real butt of the action is not anyone onstage, but we who watch and pride ourselves on our liberalism (mostly) and reasonableness (universally). He skewers us exquisitely, by demonstrating that the trouble with “muscular liberalism” is that too often the muscles are between the ears.
    
Dominic Cooke’s excellent production is slightly recast from the Court. Stuart McQuarrie rumbles volcanically as vendor Russ in the first act, and Stephen Campbell Moore makes a more physically combative presence as purchaser Steve in the second than his predecessor Martin Freeman. However, the laurels still go to Sophie Thompson as Russ’s wife Bev, who shows both the absurdity and the underlying goodness of the apple-pie stereotype which is carried over in its fashion to her second-act portrayal of buyers’ lawyer Kathy. In those moments of silence onstage, pan your eyes from left to right in order to culminate in Thompson’s magnificent perplexity. Familiarity on a second viewing has not blunted Norris’s point: we laugh just as much, and squirm just as much.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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