Review – Clybourne Park – Royal Court


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.)

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13 Responses to “Review – Clybourne Park – Royal Court”

  1. a theatre fan Says:

    Bad form, don’t you think, to review a play that hasn’t opened yet?

    “sad to watch” “failed to achieve” …?


    • webcowgirl Says:

      I’d be really surprised if they seriously changed the script – don’t you think? It’s not like it was being workshopped.

      And I totally disagree with it being “bad form” to review a play that’s in previews. As I see it, if I pay for a seat, I can write when and what I want. Those kinds of comments should be saved for the paid newspaper reviewers. This is a BLOG and I write about what I see WHEN IT HAPPENS. That’s what blogging is about.

      • a theatre fan Says:

        “That’s what blogging is about.”

        Well, by all means, don’t concern yourself with the impact of your published review of a play (which, yes actually may be being rewritten/reworked as we write – that’s what previews are all about) on the ticket sales, and therefore the pay and job security of the scores of people whose livelihood depends on any production getting even a modest run with full houses. Don’t trouble yourself at all about it.

      • webcowgirl Says:

        And if I didn’t write this review, how would they get feedback on what could be done better? Get a hold of yourself, I’m sure my reviews have little box office influence. You seem to be very defensive: involved with it somehow?

      • TheTTCritic Says:

        I’ve no problem with people writing reviews of previews (I do so myself) but it does seem to me a touch unfair not to mention within the critique that it was a preview. Previews are works in progress so need to be treated as such, any judgements need to be made in light of this.

        That said, in this case (and I should also point out I mostly disagree with this review) the Royal Court are charging full price for these previews so I see no reason why the audience shouldn’t expect a finished product. They’re also not holding very many and this is not a new play so I can’t see much changing.

        Signposting the fact it was a preview is only fair but I don’t think it in anyway invalidates Webcowgirl’s opinions in this case.


  2. A Clown Says:

    Interesting review. It’s funny what things different people pick up in it: all our post-show discussion was around the historical inaccuracies (or otherwise) and whether the son would have really waited that long to top himself. Loved it though.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I’ve been thinking about your historical inaccuracy comments and I think, regarding the Korean War timing, that actually it is historically accurate, based on atrocities Americans commited that were covered up by the US and Korean governments. 1957 – seven years after No Gun Ri – may seem kind of late for an *AHEM* but the son may have stayed in the Army for rather a while after it happened. Anyway, as an American playwright, I don’t think he made a mistake about the timing, and my guess is that he had some specific incidents in mind as the sort that would have triggered such an extreme reaction.

  3. Tweets that mention Review – Clybourne Park – Royal Court « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by webcowgirl, webcowgirl. webcowgirl said: My review of Clybourne Park @royalcourt: Excellently acted but fails to achieve greatness. […]

  4. Parsley Says:


    Looks like NONE of the press agree with you

    A full complement of 4 and 5 * reviews

    Perhaps you should not just go to plays based on the cheapness!

    • webcowgirl Says:

      It doesn’t really matter if the press agrees with me or not, does it? It’s not like I’m trying to get it “right,” I’m expressing how it was for ME. Some people share my tastes, some don’t. I often feel that there is something about me being a foreigner here that makes me take things differently than locals do. You, for example, probably think “Billy Elliot” is the height of quality when it comes to musicals (it is after all extremely popular), and I assume also think everyone should think the same way.

      And it’s not really cheapness, it’s about affordability. You’ll note I didn’t have a bad time and I certainly got my money’s worth.

      You sound like you have a chip on your shoulder. What’s your problem? Associated with the production somehow? A three star review gets you down?

      • TheTTCritic Says:

        I’m entirely with you in your right to have whatever opinion you like, even if I do often disagree. How boring it would be if we all agreed on everything.

        Billy Elliot’s probably not a good example of your American origins though. They’re completely nuts for it on Broadway, probably even more than we are here (I’m fairly ambivalent on the piece if truth be told).

        This is also an American play that went down superbly off-Broadway…


      • webcowgirl Says:

        I’m convinced, after seeing them embrace Addams Family and reject Enron, that American theatrical audiences are, on the whole, composed of people who want mindless entertainment. As they said in Forbidden Broadway: “Feed the burbs … tuppence a bag … Tepid! Vapid! Musicals pay!”

        These kinds of comments puzzle me. At least the Carlos Acosta fanatics were just wholly in a state of adoration for the man himself.

        And thanks for the support. After seeing other people eat up Jerusalem and The Comedians and then getting teary-eyed (me) at To The Mountaintop, I have to realized there are places in which my cultural background just makes me see things differently.

  5. TheTTCritic Says:

    Enron was an interesting one, you could write books on the differing critical reactions to that but New York critics don’t really differ from the ones here (and whilst it’s easy to patronise I’m not sure audiences much do either). They were hugely positive of “Billy”, largely negative of “The Addams Family” (which oddly I thought artistically negligible but entertaining in its own way) and broadly speaking like the same things as folks over here. I’d put good money on them going crazy for “Jerusalem”.

    Everyone has different tastes and who knows why…

    Also to give NYC audiences further credit, the Addams Family box office tanked last week as Nathan Lane was taking a holiday. The man is box office gold (justifiably to my mind) so that may a give at least a small insight into why that show is doing so well.


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