Friday, 11 February 2011


11/2/11, Wyndhams

2 hrs. Every bit as good as they say it is (which is always a relief and a pleasure to report): scabrous, funny, discomfiting and superbly acted, an absolutely riveting expose of the continuing cancer of race in American society. At several moments there was that rare complete stillness in the theatre which seems to happen less often in the West End than in the subsidised/Off West End sector: pure theatrical magic.

Not having seen Lorraine Hansbury's Raisin in the Sun I had no idea, until we read Matt Wolf's excellent essay in the programme at half time, that Bruce Norris's play is a riff on that one -- related to it, according to Matt, in much the same way as Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is related to Hamlet.

In Act One we see a white couple and their neighbours, plus their black maid and her husband, as they argue over the couple's plan to sell their house to a "colored" family. The husband Russ (Stuart McQuarrie) is sunk in gloom; the wife (Sophie Thompson) maintains a brittle jollity. In time we learn their son, convicted of killing civilians while serving in Korea, had committed suicide upstairs (the maid found his body). The central encounter comes when a neighbour, Karl (Stephen Campbell-Moore), argues against the sale on all the expected grounds: it will depress property prices, the neighbourhood will go down the pan, "these people" live differently, eat differently, will be more comfortable if they live separately in their existing neighbourhood. The act climaxes with the confrontation between Karl -- unable to comprehend that his intervention is utterly unwanted, that his arguments have entirely failed to persuade -- and Russ.

Act Two brings us to the present day. A young couple (Campbell-Moore again, wonderfully insensitive, and Sarah Goldberg) have bought the now thoroughly dilapidated house and want to demolish and rebuild; they are meeting the local residents' committee, including a black couple Lena and Kevin (Lorna Brown and Lucian Msamati), to discuss the proposal. Superficially the new owners and the residents' committee all belong to the affluent middle classes. But underneath black and white still have their differences. An elliptical remark from the Brown character leads by degrees to a competitive joke-telling session which is at once hilarious and horrifying: the jokes themselves aren't funny; the characters' reactions are.

How this toxic confection would play in other hands doesn't bear thinking about. With this director (Dominic Cooke) and this cast, playing it with a kind of stylised, heightened naturalism, it's mesmerising and jaw-droppingly effective. And they are good. Though it's invidious to single anyone out, Campbell-Moore plays two very different characters, buttoned-up (literally) 50s suburbanite and Rotarian and superficially liberal but actually boorish 90s man in shorts, and does it brilliantly: they are the two key characters since it's their intervention which propels the action in each act. It's a measure perhaps of what a strong ensemble this is that Lucian Msamati, one of our favourite actors, is here not exactly outclassed but doesn't stand out.

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