Clybourne Park – Wyndham’s Theatre

There is perhaps a danger when going to see a show that has received almost universal rave reviews that the actual product can never quite live up to the hype.

Clybourne Park has received a raft of glowing reviews for both its original run at the Royal Court and now for its transfer to the Wyndham’s theatre. While it is enjoyable and well performed it never quite matches the level of expectation built around it.

It’s a clever concept to look at the same property in a Chicago suburb 50 years apart and use the overt racism, which perhaps surprisingly features just as heavily in 2009 as it did in 1959, to force the audience to confront the wider subject of prejudice.

In 1959 Chicago, Russ and Bev are packing their possessions as they prepare to move from the family home. It’s a charged atmosphere as a dark family tragedy hangs over the household. Tensions are not helped when neighbour Karl arrives to complain that the house has been sold to a ‘coloured’ family. The fact that this argument is played out in front of the black maid and her husband seems not to bother this community at all.

Act Two sees the same property, now in a dilapidated state, facing demolition from a young white couple who are now seen as the outsiders in a predominantly black community. Have community relations improved over the preceding 50 years or is the talk of heritage just a cover for another form of prejudice?

Author Bruce Norris deliberately makes this uncomfortable viewing, the dark comedy raising concern within the audience as to if they should be laughing or not. Political Correctness certainly plays no part here as jokes are played against race, sex and even disability with a deaf women virtually ignored as nothing more than wallpaper.

It’s all very well constructed and clever in its use of comedy to deflate stereotypes of discrimination but, at times, it does seem clumsy and never quite making the brilliant mark. Act One does take what seems an age to pick up pace and, while Act Two turns the comedy dial to full, the poignant ending seems in comparison rushed and tacked on.

There are, however, some stella performances led by Sophie Thompson as the neurotic grief-stricken mother, who seems to be on the verge of a complete breakdown as she force feeds her guests iced tea. Stuart McQuarrie also impresses with his rage-filled Russ, a pent up force of repressed emotion that is just waiting to erupt. There are also wonderfully detailed performances from Lorna Brown, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Sarah Goldberg.

While it is entertaining and thought provoking, it does leave more questions unanswered than resolved. Some characters such as the deaf Betsy seem woefully underused and only included as a source of comedy potential. Yes it may be that these characters have been introduced to demonstrate the destructive force of discrimination but their use as a figure of fun leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Overall, a strong production that just never comes quite to the point of brilliance that the hype suggests.

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