Paul Johnson | 01 May 2013 14:58pm
Having missed – to my shame – both London runs of the multi-award-winning Clybourne Park, first at the Royal Court in 2010 and subsequently Wyndham’s Theatre in 2011, it was a real stroke of luck that I was able to witness Bruce Norris’ masterpiece at the hands of the competent Putney Theatre Company this week.
When it’s a new play that you’re watching, if you think about it, an amateur society (or a professional company for that matter) holds a considerable level of responsibility to its audience to faithfully reproduce the respective playwright’s vision. And I couldn’t think of a more fitting example than with Clybourne Park, because it’s only when you sit through a performance of such a high standard, as was the case last night, that one realises how destructive it could be coming from a less-capable set-up. Director Ian Higham should be given full marks for not just assembling a stellar PTC cast but also crafting a finished production worthy of any stage. His excellent programme foreword demonstrated his deep understanding of Norris’ play and the issues covered.
Set in the Chicago suburb of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris links Clybourne Park to the timeline of events from Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun, a play about the Youngers, a black family attempting to improve their lives by leaving their rented flat in Chicago’s notorious South Side and buying a house of their own in a white middle-class area of the city. The house they are buying is that of Russ and Bev Stoller… and is the house which forms the focus of Clybourne Park.
In Act One we see the grieving Stollers preparing to move, initiated by the suicidal death of their son. The couple are visited by Karl Linder, from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association (and the only character also featured in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun) who attempts to make the couple aware of the gravity of their actions: selling to a ‘black’ family, which can only result in the lowering of the area’s property value as well as acting as a catalyst to prompt similar such catastrophic moves (In A Raisin in the Sun Linder unsuccessfully visits the Youngers in an attempt to ‘buy them out’ – hence his last-ditch and desperate trip to see the Stollers). Linder is unsuccessful once more, which, fifty years later, enables Act Two to exist…
Act Two is set in 2009 in the same house and features young couple Steve and Lindsey who are holding a planning meeting with their architect, their lawyer as well as Kevin and Lena – a black couple from the, now entirely ‘black’, local community. Steve and Lindsey, who are ‘white’ are hoping to knock the house down and replace it with their own design; hence (or so we first think) Kevin and Lena’s presence. However, fifty years on and the issue of race, which has never gone away, not only resurfaces but explodes the situation into one of excruciating, uncomfortable and viciously hilarious tension… oh, and some of the strongest language possible.
Apart from Norris referencing Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun throughout Act One, he then cleverly mirrors much of the set-up and dialogue through the characters of Act Two which eventually brings the play full circle. Act One’s seven actors are all recast during the interval to arguably play an extended and in some cases slightly twisted version of their earlier characters which joyously brought out the very best in Higham’s cast.
This was a solid ensemble and highly entertaining piece of theatre featuring extremely strong performances right across the board, but I feel I must give special mention to: firstly Richard Brent as the ever so-slightly right-wing ‘Karl Linder’ followed by ‘Steve’, who slams Act Two’s race debate onto the table; Ade Gbinigie as the Stollers’ housemaid, ‘Francine’, followed by an outstanding performance as self-assured ‘Lena’ (“Why is a white woman like a tampon?” – trust me, that’s all you need to know); Brian Yansen as Francine’s husband, ‘Albert’, and fifty years later as Lena’s husband ‘Kevin’ – the height difference (Yansen by far the shorter) working brilliantly on top of the acting couple’s strong chemistry; but the real standout performance for me was from flame-haired Elly Lacey who contrasted wonderfully as Karl’s deaf wife, ‘Betsy’, with house-buyer, ‘Lindsey’ (both characters’ pregnancies serving as an example of Norris’ two-act mirroring). Extremely watchable throughout, Lacey gave a masterclass in underplaying a role and the ability to say a thousand words without speaking – and that refers mostly to her non-deaf performance in Act Two.
Martin Cobley’s 1950’s Act One set design brilliantly managed to come across as fittingly dated while at the same time stylishly modern, with the post-interval changes bringing the house forward half a century also excellent.
If you can get to Putney before Saturday, I can’t recommend this production highly enough. As good theatre goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.
PTC’s production of Clybourne Park is playing at Putney Arts Centre until Saturday, 4th May. Visit PTC’s Sardines Directory page here
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- : 30/04/2013