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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
CLYBOURNE PARK
at Jerwood Theatre, Royal Court

EBONY AND IVORY: AN UNEASY TRUCE
By SAM MARLOWE

  Martin Freeman, Sarah Goldberg and Steffan Rhodri/ Ph: Johan Persson

Bev and Russ, to all appearances as nice as apple pie, are selling their comfortable home in a wholesome Chicago suburb. Steve and Lindsey, reasonably prosperous and expecting their first child, are buying a dilapidated house in an area in the process of shedding its reputation for drugs and street crime, and now endowed, in real-estate terms, with the label up-and-coming. What could be the problem with either innocent-sounding scenario? Well, Bev and Russ’ transaction is taking place in 1959 – and the buyers are black, which causes consternation among the local Caucasian community. Fifty years later, Steve and Lindsey have their eye on the self-same property; only now, the tables are turned, the district is almost exclusively African-American, and though the official protest against them has focused on their plans for a somewhat grandiose refurbishment, there’s a creeping suspicion that their skin colour is a greater source of objection. The vocabulary may be more sophisticated in the 21st century, the resentments more veiled; but the divisions, it seems, are just as deep.
 
Bruce Norris’ drama – which cleverly references Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking classic A Raisin in the Sun – is bitterly comic and as sharp as broken glass, unpicking the platitudes of political correctness to expose the suspicion, territorialism and bigotry that lurks beneath the surface of polite liberal attitudes. And Dominic Cooke’s excoriating production shows no mercy. It ripples with discomfiting laughter, the excruciating, blatant insensitivities of the play’s first act replaced with the equally painful euphemism and over-compensatory cultural cringe of the second, until finally pretence crumbles and ugly prejudices are aired, albeit in the form of an exchange of aggressive racist jokes.
 
Sophie Thompson’s manic Bev and her morose husband, Steffan Rhodri’s Russ, have issues within their own walls, as well as beyond them, to contend with. Their son returned from Korea disgraced and traumatised, and hanged himself in the family home – which is why the house is on the market for a knockdown price, making it affordable for the black couple who is buying it. Martin Freeman as their acquaintance Karl pays a visit with the intention of talking the pair out of selling – a conversation that takes place under the noses of Bev’s black home help Francine (Lorna Brown) and her husband Albert (Lucian Msamati), and that they are even dragged into. When they are not being held up as evidence that “cultural differences” will make a mixed community undesirable, Francine and Albert are ignored, as though they were as deaf as Karl’s oblivious wife (Sarah Goldberg) – who, ironically, really is hard-of-hearing. 
 
By the second act, though, Brown and Msamati are a polished pair of Clybourne Park residents, while Goldberg and Freeman as the white newcomers and Thompson as their fast-talking lawyer bend over backwards to show respect for the history and character of the area. But the veneer of equality is thin, and it doesn’t take much for any one of them to topple into a political pothole. This is stingingly good drama: acidic, unsettling and ferociously funny.

 


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