Clybourne Park @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Steffan Rhodri, Sophie Thompson, Lorna Brown, Sam Spruell, Lucian Msamati, Martin Freeman, Sarah Goldberg, Michael Goldsmith.

directed by
Dominic Cooke
Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park is very much a play of two halves.

Probably best known as a playwright for his critically acclaimed The Pain and the Itch (which was also staged at the Royal Court), here he attempts to tackle suburban racism, but this admirable ambition is undone by an over-reliance on easy jokes and lazy stereotypes.

The first half of the play is set in 1959: a Mad Men type world of nervy, stifled housewives and stoic, frustrated men.
Bereaved couple Bev (an over-mannered Sophie Thompson) and Russ (Steffan Rhodri), keen to escape the house in which their Korean war veteran son committed suicide, have sold it at a knock-down price. This inadvertently allows a black family to make the purchase, upsetting the more conservative neighbours, who fear for the future of the neighbourhood and their own house prices.

Martin Freeman has some fun as the fussy bigot (the moment where he ‘oversteps the line’ in his ‘I’m not a racist, but… ” reasoning is beautifully played) but the rest of the cast are hamstrung by accents they don’t seem able to maintain, shallow writing and thin characterisation. And in an attempt to balance the overt racism of the homeowners, Norris creates an invert racism of his own, leaving the black characters (Lorna Brown as the domestic help and Lucian Msamati as her husband) little to do but be dry, resigned and sardonic, without ever giving any sense of them as actual peopl

The second half fares far better. Freed from the period setting, the actors seem more at ease, even if some of the cast are still less than comfortable with the American accents, and the action mores more loosely. In a neat inversion, Freeman and Sarah Goldberg (his wife in the first act) are young yuppies whose plans to raze the house to the ground to build something new are met with resistance from the local community, who want to preserve what they see as its cultural importance. The script here is sharper and funnier – a scene where the assembled cast compete to tell the most offensive joke had the audience roaring with laughter even as it drew gasps of shock – but again the handling of race is pretty heavy handed. If you don’t actually believe that everyone is secretly a bit racist and that if you scratch even the most outspoken liberal you’ll get a closet bigot – well, you might find the assumptions the play seems to take for granted more than a little offensive.

Still, the performances are far more enjoyable in this act: Freeman is excellent as the husband who flounders as the appropriateness of his beliefs is called into question, and Goldberg gets some good laughs, although her increasing hysterics grow quickly tiresome. Sam Spruell is solid but underused, and Sophie Thompson doesn’t get much to say but makes the most of the lines she is given. Freed from their roles of dignified domestics, Brown and Msamati put in a strong showing as the couple opposed to the new build. Rhodri, after a decent performance as the tortured father in the first act, is fine but has little to do as the builder who unearths the house’s dark secret. You can’t help feeling that if the play had focused solely on the modern story, it might have been far more interesting – this is reinforced by the completely unnecessary final scene, which feels tacked on and pointless.

Robert Innes-Hopkins’ impressive set – a perfect 50s house turned shell stripped bare – frames the action perfectly, but Dominic Cooke’s direction feels patchy, giving the first part of the play the feel of a failed comedy sketch that jars against the more polished second act.

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