Archive for September 1st, 2010

Review – Clybourne Park – Royal Court

September 1, 2010

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m a sucker for a deal. And anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I’m an avid advocate of the service as well as a rabid user. So imagine my joy when I got a Tweet announcing a £5 special for bank holiday tickets to the Royal Court’s new production, Clybourne Park. I mean, I LOVE the Royal Court; they’re the place that puts on the cool new shows and has a deliciously affordable pricing regime, plus seats with Corinthian Leather upholstery. I didn’t even bother looking anything about the show; I just found the one date I could make it (provided my plane showed up on time) and booked a ticket, BANG.

Somehow I managed to remember I had a show the day I came back from vacation, and, to my good luck, the West End Whingers were going the same night. BAM! Clybourne Kismet! And I was in love with my 4th row seat, even though it was just little old me there by myself. All I knew about the show was that it was about racism and that it was set in Chicago, two scenes in the same house, years apart. But hey, bring it on!

SO … Clybourne Park is apparently meant to be a satire, though I found only the first act satirical. It seems to be two almost entirely different but parallel plays: the first one a harsh visit to a family dealing with the death of their son, the second a very true-to-life depiction of neighbourhood planning meetings, race, and gentrification. The plays are tied together by taking place in the same house and using the same characters (some of whom are related to the earlier characters); there is also a parallel plot line about having people of a different race move into a neighbourhood and how that makes the current inhabitants uncomfortable. The acting and direction was uniformly good; Stephan Rhodri was outstanding as Russ, act one’s dad; Sophie Thompson was freakish as Bev, the 50s housewife on the verge of a breakdown (I saw her performance as capturing most of the satire). And I love the subtle Prairie influence of the set in act one, nicely creating a Chicago feel in a play that could really have been set just as easily in Seattle or L.A.

Still, despite the general interest of how the race issue was dealt with in America in the 50s and in the now (and the horrible familiarity of the spat over urban planning issues in modern America), I felt this play let me down. On a lesser point, I felt it generally wasted the two African American characters; they spend most of act one huddled in a corner, then are only allowed to say a very little more in act two. Really, if the play is going to deal with race, maybe it should let the non-white characters get a little more speaking time?

Secondly, as a theatre goer I was frustrated by the MacGuffin of the giant army chest. To me, it symbolized everything the playwright did NOT deal with in act two. I was completely caught up in this family’s grief and desperately wanted to see how they dealt with it after intermission wrapped up. Instead I got a seeming therapy session, in which people talked about where they’d been on vacation and occasionally looked at a lengthy document and made a few pronouncements on it. Was I really emotionally vested in whether or not the white family got a big house in the gentrifying neighborhood, or to what extent the black and white people succeeded in needling each other about race? To me it came off as a very temporal concern, very much lacking in the universality of act one. And while I can say, due to the fine creation of character, that Clybourne Park is a good and watchable piece of theater, unfortunately I feel like it just isn’t deep enough. It was sad to watch a play on the verge of greatness fail to achieve it; maybe next time Bruce Norris will knock the ball out of the park, but Clybourne Park is at best a double.

(This review is for a play that took place on Tuesday, August 31st, 2010. Clybourne Park continues at the Royal Court until October 2nd, 2010. For another view, please see the West End Whingers review.)