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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Clybourne Park
Royal Court Theatre  Autumn 2010;    Wyndham's Theatre 2011

It is obvious that the inspiration for Bruce Norris's entertaining satire is Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 A Raisin In The Sun, since his first act is essentially a comical look at the offstage action of Hansberry's drama about an African-American family preparing to move into an all-white neighbourhood.

Norris turns his attention to the white couple who have sold the house, and the neighbours who try to talk them out of it.

Distance gives Norris the opportunity to look at the story comically, and to present the neighbours as fools more than bigots.

But it doesn't keep him from finding seriousness of an unexpected sort in the experience of the selling husband, who is motivated in part by resentment at what he sees as their friends' failure to support them in a period of private tragedy, and who thus doesn't give a damn what happens to their property values when he leaves.

Act Two further compounds the ironies by jumping ahead fifty years and reversing the situation, as a white couple plan to move into the same property in what is now a black neighbourhood whose residents have been there long enough to feel some loyalty to it and be suspicious of gentrifying yuppies.

What Norris has to say about more polite but still unresolved American race relations, about neighbourhood and loyalty, and about the clash between honourable aspirations and honourable conservatism all comes through without preaching, in part because it is sugar-coated by a lot of extraneous but thoroughly enjoyable comedy.

In each act the serious discussions - between sellers and neighbours then and between buyers and community representatives now - are repeatedly interrupted and sidetracked by comic irrelevancies, from phone calls and offers of refreshment to travel stories and arguments over the capital of Morocco.

Act One is punctuated by the need to repeat and translate everything for a deaf woman, Act Two by a string of joke-telling with increasingly antagonistic subtexts.

And with at least two married couples present in each half, we are invited to enjoy the cracks appearing in their cordiality as things get heated.

Indeed, one small weakness of the play is that the incidental and essentially irrelevant laughs are so much fun that they risk going beyond sugar-coating to total negation of the play's serious content.

That's a danger that director Dominic Cooke can't always avoid, especially in the first act, where the characters do tip over into stereotypical cartoons, especially Sophie Thompson's parody of a 'Fifties housewife.

The strongest performances are those that manoeuvre the tightrope between serious and comic, notably Steffan Rhodri's bitter seller in 1959 and Martin Freeman's exasperated buyer in 2009.

Lucian Msamati artfully steals scenes in both halves as a quiet observer whose occasional sharp zinger shows that he sees through everyone's euphemistic cant.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Clybourne Park - Royal Court Theatre 2010
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