Clybourne Park is an often laugh-out-loud funny, bitingly witty, skilfully written play by American Bruce Norris exploring the intersection of race and property values in the US that in this transfer production from the Royal Court is expertly staged and superbly acted.
Through two acts that cover snapshot moments from the history of a single inner suburban home in Chicago (1959 and 2009), it neatly skewers middle-class hypocrisy, self-satisfaction and cant.
There’s one real problem with that: to explore particularly unpleasant middle-class mores requires spending an evening in the company of prattling, middle-class bores, with accents that are frequently horribly grating and irritating.
That’s not meant as a criticism of the acting: Sophie Thompson as Bev, the mindlessly jabbering housewife of the first act, and Sarah Goldberg as the hypersensitively pregnant and astonishingly self-centred wife in the second both do standout jobs in portraying their very, very irritating characters (and the rest of the cast are just as good), but there were moment when I really thought “I don’t want to hear another word from this character”.
And the staging and general production values are high – as you’d expect. (And I doubt I was the only one left wondering how they did the amazing transformation of the set between the first and second acts.)
But there’s another problem with the play – it has at its heart a terrible human tragedy – a soldier who came home to this is family home after the Korea War, convicted and confessed of being what we’d now call a war criminal. But that fact isn’t really explored or developed, it’s simply used as a driving force for the first half of the plot, and as a neat if rather meaningless finishing scene.
If you do go to this play you’ll laugh a lot more than you’ll laugh at most comedies; you’ll squirm in your seat in an uncomfortable way, recognising middle-class examples of all-too-common racism to match this week’s Sky Sports sexism scandal. And many theatregoers will no doubt be happy enough with that – certainly it was packed this evening.
But you might also leave with a nasty little taste in your mouth, having spent an evening with characters you might half-recognise, but don’t really want to remember.
Clybourne Park is at the Wyndham Theatre, until May 7.