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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Wyndham’s Theatre


  Sophie Thompson and Lorna Brown/ Ph: Donald_Cooper

Dominic Cooke’s first production in his first season three years ago as artistic director of the Royal Court was of Bruce Norris' The Pain and the Itch, an abrasive comedy of manners at a Thanksgiving dinner reenacted for the benefit of a Muslim Somalian cab driver whose diabetic wife has just died.
That play, first seen at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, seemed designed to upset all right-thinking lefties, which was one of the many good things about it. Now Cooke wraps up three successful years in the job – and he’s still flying high – with a premiere of a Norris play (simultaneous to its opening off-Broadway) that updates Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking A Raisin in the Sun.
The comparison is intended, for Norris not only sets his new first act in the same year as Hansberry’s play hit Broadway, 1959, but also rewrites one of Hansberry’s characters, Karl Lindner, as a neighbourly Rotarian white bigot (with a well-meaning deaf wife) who calls by the Chicagoan bungalow on Clybourne Street belonging to a couple torn apart by the death of their son, a veteran in the Korean War.
In the first act, the sense of loss and upheaval – the couple is packing up and moving out – is underpinned with the quiet, simmering acquiescence of a patronised black maid and her bullish husband. In the second, 50 years on, the same property is occupied by a housing committee trying to sort out its future in what is now a black ghetto.
Although the conceit of overlaying the past and the present on the same patch is not new – there’s something of this in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia – Norris’ writing is extraordinarily sharp and funny in arranging historical paybacks and reverberating character ironies, especially as the cast members play different, complementary roles in each act.
Following a bunch of rave reviews and packed houses at the Royal Court last September – and after snaring both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Best Play awards – the play moved into Wyndham’s in late January with just two cast changes, one for the better, one for the slightly worse. Steffan Rhodri’s depressed husband and slouching workman are now more fleshily and tumultuously occupied by Stuart McQuarrie, while Martin Freeman’s sensationally abrasive and deftly appalling Karl in the first half is slightly soft-pedaled by Stephen Campbell Moore, a fine actor who was the absolute crux, I felt, of last year’s All My Sons.
Much of the play investigates what you can or can’t say in today’s minefield of political correctness surrounding racialism and social orientation, and one joke in particular – asking why is a white woman like a tampon – detonates in the theatre like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It’s delivered with magisterial aplomb by Lorna Brown as a sort of revenge on her first act “slave” role.
Cooke’s production, which is beautifully designed and lit by Robert Inness Hopkins and the ubiquitous Paule Constable, taunts and teases his audience in much the same way other hawkish liberal American playwrights John Guare and Wallace Shawn have done before. This tactic is far more successful at the Court than it is in the more amorphous ambience of the West End.
Still, the show is also an excuse to sample the brilliant comedy acting of Sophie Thompson (Emma’s kid sister) as a ditsy suburban housewife in the first act, and a brutally insensitive lawyer in the second. It’s like watching Lucille Ball morphing into Phyllis Diller. Following Enron and Jerusalem, Cooke’s Court has another seriously huge hit on its hands.
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