CLYBOURNE PARK Park Theatre, N4

WELCOME BACK, BITING SHARP AS EVER

   In 2010 Bruce Norris’ play wowed the Royal Court: this is a  ten-year anniversary (well, plus two years lost to Covid) so forgive me for quoting what I wrote then:

“I spent the interval racked with worry that the play might decline in Act 2. If that had happened I would have trudged heartbroken into the night, unable to write a word. No danger, though: it roared off again into the stratosphere, glittering and throwing off sparks.”

     It is a treat to return to this clever, honest, mocking piece: a comedy wrapped around a tragedy, a satire on class, race, offence, grief and housing. And by chance I see it  just after the Bridge’s Straight Line Crazy (below), about New York’s  growth and social conflicts 1922-62.   For this, set in the same house in 1959 and then 2009, makes a sort of accidental oblique sequel, conveying the  human tides flowing along those expressways. It is sharp, funny, bookended with delicate grace by  an acknowledgement of  tragedy. In  Oliver Kaderbhai’s  production it is also most beautifully acted. 

     . In 1959 Bev (Imogen Stubbs, housewifely, wittering, cloaking a deep grief)  and her husband Russ (keeping a lid on it, postwar-stoical) are selling up to a non-white family, which fills their  prat neighbour Karl with horror. Gradually we learn how, despite their initially vapid conversations, Russ and Bev are blighted by the shame and suicide of their soldier son after  the  Korean war . Mediated with zero success by the local minister, and witnessed by their decent embarrassed black maid and her husband, a glorious row develops. 

     Andrew Langtree’s Karl – bowtie and strutting gait – is perfect, furious about unmixable  “cultures” and house prices,  not above a bit of blackmail. Richard Lintern as Russ is magnificent both in  restraint and the loss of it: preoccupied, crippled with grief and memory, rising  to a massive justified anger.  Stubbs gives us an innocent, kindly and tormented and clumsily trapped in white-madam patronage:  in a heartbreaking last remark to her gentle cleaner,  she murmurs how good it would be “if we could all sit together at table”

    So we can feel briefly superior to these 1959 people, but fifty years on, after the neighbourhood “went black” and white gentrifiers are moving in, Act2 shows their successors.  The same cast but wholly different (Stubbs now a hellish self satisfied lawyer, Langtree a different kind of prat) are at a homeowners’ meeting about planning objections. At, as it were, the same table,  but not doing too  well. They – we – are just as absurd and even touchier, in Norris’ early and timely prefiguraration of our present Age of Offence. 

     This play indeed just gets more and more topical, with its famously  cathartic storm of mutual offence:  gay, black, white, pregnant, patriotic, all furious….all it needs is for trans politics to be dropped in and we’s be in 2022. Themes from the first act are neatly interwoven: among them the original tragedy itself, a delicate, understated staging stopping your breath. . Seven fine actors dazzle, veteran and newcomers  (Aliyah Odoffin is on a professional stage debut, assured and elegantly in timing).   The play deserves no less. 

Parktheatre.co.uk. To 23 April

Rating.  Four

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