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Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris
Trish Wadley Productions and David Adkin in association with Park Theatre
Park Theatre (Park 200)

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Michael Fox as Jim, Eric Underwood as Albert, Aliyah Odoffin as Francine, Andrew Langtree as Karl and Katie Matsell as Betsy Credit: Mark Douet
Eric Underwood as Albert and Aliyah Odoffin as Francine Credit: Mark Douet
Richard Lintern as Russ and Michael Fox as Jim Credit: Mark Douet
Eric Underwood as Kevin and Andrew Langtree as Steve Credit: Mark Douet
Michael Fox as Soldier Credit: Mark Douet

Bruce Norris’s 2010 play is directly linked to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, written fifty years earlier about a black family buying a house in a white area of Chicago. It is set in that very house, its white owners are packing up just after selling it, with a character in common called Karl (Andrew Longtree) eager to buy the house to keep the place white.

It is a play about racism and property and Oliver Kaderbhai’s production opens with a model house at centre stage, its windows all lit up and a chimney smoking. A soldier in uniform comes on and looks inside then the lights fade as the company bring on elements to create an interior while projected portraits of presidents flash up until reaching Eisenhower, setting the date.

It is 1959 and outgoing owner Russ (Richard Lintern) is eating up the ice cream left when his wife Bev (Imogen Stubbs) cleared out the fridge. A banal conversation about the meaning of Neapolitan and what you call people from different places amusingly satirises their insular attitudes and ignorance but there is an edginess too for they are grieving the death of their son. His involvement in atrocities while serving in Vietnam led to his still recent suicide, one reason for their moving and a sale at a lowish price.

Russ hides his feelings and his anger at how neighbours treated his son beneath a stoic exterior Bev seems disoriented. A visiting vicar shows little understanding and when neighbours turn up who have found out who has bought the house, things explode in a great row.

Andrew Langtree’s Karl spits racist venom even as he invites Bev’s black maid Francine (Aliyah Odoffin, making her stage debut) and her boyfriend Albert (Eric Underwood) to back up his argument. Bev may call Francine her friend but still seems oblivious of racial realities, though she’s better at communicating with Karl’s pregnant deaf wife (Katie Matsell) whose husband largely ignores her. This isn’t just a picture of privilege and prejudice fifty years ago. It asks how much has really changed.

The second act fast-forwards to Obama in office. It is set in the same room, somewhat reconfigured, in 2009. Clybourne Park is now a black area but a white couple have bought the house and plan to redevelop the site with a large house. The same cast now play a different set of characters, neighbours gathered to discuss those plans. The black couple lead the objectors, they want to conserve the neighbourhood and keep its character.

It is not just about gentrification and property. Underlying racism is still rife but, though the acting is still dynamic, the second half doesn’t have the same bite. Langtree’s obnoxious character Steve still barks loudly and Katie Matsell as Lindsey is again pregnant but Imogen Stubbs is now playing a self-satisfied property lawyer, Michel Fox a gay man offended by the exchange of coarse jokes the debate turns into. Richard Lintern is now a building worker who disrupt things at intervals.

He digs up a box which was previously seen in the first act and reintroduces the play’s other tragic strand, another of the past guilts that haunt the US. Under Obama, America began to acknowledge them, but what happens now in a Trump divided nation?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton