Originally published in the Bristol Post on the 14th November
Eight years after Clybourne Park hit our shores in a meticulous Royal Court production that rode to West End success, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School revives Bruce Norris’ scathing play about racial disharmony. Although it inevitably can’t compete with the memories of Dominic Cooke’s splendid premiere production, it still shows that Norris’ work has the ability to thrash liberal hypocrisy and provide uneasy laughs.
A companion of sorts to Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin’ In The Sun, we begin in 1959 in a suburban Chicago suburb where Bev (Holly Carpenter) and Russ (Jason Imlach) have sold their house for a knockdown fee to a Black couple (the Younger family from Hansbury’s classic) much to the disquiet from neighbour Carl (a smarmy Finnbar Haymar) who comes round and publicly berates them in front of the neighbourhood for damaging the price of property.
In 2009 a young white couple wants to build an extension on the same plot of land, but face resistance from the all-black neighbourhood committee who feel this will erase the cultural significance of the block. Smartly cross cast to show how times may change but attitudes do not, it gradually builds up until a cascade of jokes that leave its audience gaping and unsure whether to laugh or cry. If you’ve ever wanted to know why a white woman is like a tampon, or what happens when a prison cell is shut on a black man and a white man, this show will give you some cringe-worthy answers.
Though it won both an Olivier and Tony for Best Play the work has created some controversy. Kwame Kwei-Armah has discussed how furious the work made him after watching it; as the white neighbours in ’59 state ‘’If you let them in, the neighbourhood will be destroyed’’, and fifty years later we are told about the difficult history of the street as violence and drugs ran rampant. Norris, perhaps unwittingly Armah asserts penned a piece where ‘’whites flight and blacks blight. That whites build and blacks destroy.’’ Reading the piece through this prism, it is difficult to overlook the implicit bias within the piece and the laughter sticks in the throat as a result.
The graduating students of BOVTS, perhaps deliberately, don’t tear into the grotesquery as much as required. The laughs are restrained early, and because of this, when we get to the riskier material, the audience isn’t fully onside to go with it.
On a first viewing of the class of 2019 grads, Carpenter stands out as a neurotic housewife and a lawyer who can’t see past her own privilege and Mofetoluwa Akande is superb as a maid who is dragged into a conversation she does not want to be a part of and as a spiky neighbour who may be no worse in her bigotry than Carl.
It may now appear more problematic than it first appeared, but Clybourne Park is still a piece with plenty to say and a spike in its tale.
Clybourne Park plays at the Weston Studio until 17 November