A taboo-exploding play that includes more incendiary remarks in succession than are often seen on stage – to hilarious effect. A fantastic cast and fast pace within a simple but innovative structure make this play a must-see.
It has certainly been interesting going into West End theatres over this bank holiday weekend. On Saturday I had to sit behind a group of women who were wearing fascinators in the front row, a full day after the royal nuptials were complete. Yesterday, however, was the crowning irritation moment of all of my theatrical life. Let me add quickly that I am not referring to the American couple who were sitting beside me and were absolutely lovely (and took my card so are hopefully spreading the word of this blog across the pond…).
Is it against the rules to smoke an electric cigarette in a theatre? It should be. When a man who could only be described as Don Corleone after letting himself go (Hawaiian shirt, combover, a few extra pounds…) sat down in front of us and started grunting we became a little wary. When he whipped out the imitation cigarette – which had a glowing blue tip and let him exhale fake smoke – it was, to say the least, distracting. I have had friends who have been asked to put notebooks away when at the theatre, as the glare from the white paper was distracting to the actors. Surely a glowing blue cigarette tip floating around in the 4th row can’t be conducive to concentration? This man also (despite being awake) managed to make snoring noises throughout the performance. Thank god the play was diverting enough to grab our attention. Being as British as I am of course I made no fuss, so can’t really complain – but does anyone know the policy on electric cigarettes in theatres? If so, please leave me a comment below…
Anyway, rant over. This truly was an extraordinary play. It won the Pulitzer prize for drama this year, and it is easy to see why. The last play I saw that won the top accolade was Next to Normal, and the show still stays with me two years later. I am desperate for news of a West End run. I have a feeling that Clybourne Park will similarly linger in my memory.
Set in a single room on the outskirts of Chicago, the play examines race relations in suburban America. Act one takes place in 1959 as a white couple are preparing to move out of the house that they have sold to the neighbourhood’s first black family. The second act sees the same house in 2009, having just been sold to a young white couple.
The structure works on many levels. The 21st century audience can view the initial tensions of the discussion over race from the comfort of a 50 year time-lapse, allowing them to develop a feeling of superiority at ‘how far we’ve come’. The second act, however, leaves no room for such comforts, as it lays bare all of the prejudices, ignorance and misunderstandings that are still widespread in a society that is still largely – albeit differently – segregated along racial lines. This is not a self-righteous, preachy play. Instead it pokes fun at our dealings with, and reaction to, race. It similarly tackles gender, sexuality and mental illness as the dialogue rips through the topics that we still find difficult to discuss in polite society. A word of warning – don’t go along with parents/grandparents/great aunts unless you have a very open, modern relationship. I still cringe at the memory of sitting between my parents for my first viewing of Avenue Q whilst the puppets had sex on stage singing about being ‘as loud as the hell you want’. I wouldn’t want anyone else to fall mercy to the same fate. If, however, you are comfortable with multiple expletives then go for it – you’ll have a lot to discuss afterwards.
The quality of the script is self-evident. When combined with a fantastic cast, it makes for an unforgettable experience. Sophie Thompson (whom you will probably recognise as the second bride, Lydia, in Four Weddings, though she is a multi-award winning stage actress) lights up the stage. Taking the central part in act one, she makes fifties housewife Bev a sympathetic and multi-faceted character behind the facade of a screaming stereotype. Stuart McQuarrie is similarly nuanced as Russ, Bev’s depressed husband. The two of them provide a strong anchoring point around which the mayhem of the squabbling dialogue can pivot. Each has a smaller part in act two, but still manage to steal the show whenever they are present.
Supported by a very strong cast, all playing very different roles in each half, it is hard to identify a weak link in the Clybourne Park chain. Lorna Brown & Lucian Msamati are on great form throughout, Sarah Goldberg makes a great West End debut and Stephen Campbell Moore (though he can do very little wrong in my eyes after being involved in The History Boys and All My Sons) is similarly at the top of his game as a bigoted fifties Rotarian/foot-in-mouth noughties house buyer.
This play will appeal to viewers of all ages, as the themes are relevant for all. It questions not only how much we have truly progressed on race, but whether we have allowed our new political correctness on the issue to cloud over other inequalities and prejudices that heavily influence our behaviour today. Particularly relevant here is prejudice against the victims of mental illness and their families, issues being raised at the moment by the Time to Change campaign.
In all, this was an extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking play with a fantastic cast, script, staging and pace. What more could one ask for? Hurry up though – it must end on Saturday.
Clybourne Park is playing at the Wyndham’s theatre until Saturday 7th May. On Monday, tickets were available at £11 off the face value of £50.50 at TKTS (see Highly Recommended links).