“That’s not the joke I was thinking of…”
Maintaining an excellent record of transfers for the Royal Court, Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park is the latest play to make the leap from Sloane Square to the West End, in this case the Wyndham’s Theatre. Robert Innes Hopkins’ design seems to have transferred almost exactly as it was at the Royal Court, seemingly at the same size and still undergoing such a great transformation in the interval. All but two of the original cast have transferred with the show, directed by Dominic Cooke, which has already won Best Show plaudits from the Evening Standard, South Bank Sky Arts and the Critics Circle and looks set to continue that success.
I saw the show early in its run at the Royal Court and though not originally intending to revisit the show, the opportunity arose and I became quite intrigued by the idea of seeing the production again in a new home. The play takes a dual look at racial prejudice in America, starting in 1959 as a white family try to sell their house in a white neighbourhood to a black family despite pressure from the locals, then switching to 2009 where the tables are turned as the demographic of the area has switched completely and it is the black community resisting the ideas of a white couple who want to buy the same house. It looks at how people rarely say exactly what they mean, especially where race is concerned and though things would seem to have improved by 2009, the events of the second half show us that that progress could be seen to be quite superficial.
Sophie Thompson stood out for me once again with a simply sensational first half performance which gained even more depth for me, now having the advance knowledge of the reasons for her behaviour. She brings a powerful emotional resonance anyway to the so-very-brittle Bev, a housewife struggling do to the right thing in the minefield of both the changing racial and sexual politics of the time. And I’d forgotten just how funny her wise-cracking lawyer is, a much smaller part for the second half but almost just as impactful.
Stuart McQuarrie, replacing Steffan Rhodri, was superb at evoking both the simmering suppressed rage of Russ and the affability of chatty workman Dan, suggesting more of the slothful nature of the former and thereby heightening the threat felt by him as he snaps. Stephen Campbell Moore had the slightly trickier job of stepping in at the last minute for Jason Watkins, the original replacement for Martin Freeman, who had to withdraw from the production for family reasons. His first half performance isn’t quite as natural as it needs to be yet, suffering a little by comparison to Freeman’s ease, one never quite forgets he’s ‘acting’ as Karl but this should come with time and he is excellent as Steve, who pushes the situation further than it can bear with his unleashing of a torrent of dodgy jokes, both characters incredibly stubborn in their own way. Lorna Brown’s excruciatingly passive-aggressive Lena, Sam Spruell’s heartily inquisitive Jim and Sarah Goldberg’s overly PC and pregnant Lindsey were other excellent performances it was nice to revisit but this is a pleasingly tight ensemble who connect brilliantly in both configurations.
Best new play of last year? I’m not sure I agree fully with that although it was certainly one of the main contenders for me, but the fact remains that it is the only example of new writing currently in the West End and so it really does deserves your support. It helps that it is as sharply observed a play as this, with its moments of great humour but also a brutal indictment of the liberal American middle-classes who are not so far removed from our own…