Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris
Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Ben Deery and Mark Womack Credit: Robert Day
Mark Womack Credit: Robert Day
Wole Sawyerr, Gloria Onitiri and William Troughton Credit: Robert Day

Consternation reigns in 1959 Chicago when Bev and Russ, a white middle class couple, are moving house and have sold to (horror of horrors) a black family.

Several neighbours drop by to give their opinions and a more neurotic, bigoted and unreasonable group would be hard to find (I hope). The usual fears are expressed. “It will begin with one and then others will move in. It’s all right at the other side of town, but not in Clybourne Park”, with the main fear being the prospect of falling property prices.

Bruce Norris has taken an ordinary (if extremely heated) discussion between neighbours and turned it into a multi-award-winning play, setting it in the same house but having a fifty-year gap between the two acts, the second act being basically the same theme as the first, a discussion for the good of the community, but with changing attitudes and from a totally different perspective.

There are so many strands to this play and they all overlap each other with the conversation veering between the serious and the incidental, from community matters to world capitals or skiing and back. Rebecca Manley as Bev chatters non-stop about anything and everything, trying to cope with husband Russ (Mark Womack). It seems they have suffered a tragic loss, the reason for the move, leading to an extra dimension of bereavement, resentment and mood swings to add to the general chaotic arguments.

They even bring in the black maid to give her opinion on the matter. This is Gloria Onitiri as Francine, quietly respectful and deferential, yet with self-respect and a pride which makes her refuse any suggestion of charity.

Act two and fifty years later, a white couple want to build a house on the same plot and face adversity from the all-black residents committee. Things might have changed colour, but does nothing else ever change?

Well the actors have changed with their new modern characters all in a committee meeting with smartphones at the ready. Onitiri, now as Lena and head of the committee, is totally transformed and is confident, sophisticated and able to tell a rude joke without turning a hair, while Bev has become Kathy and just as ready with the unimportant chatter, even with her character as a lawyer.

In both acts, the conversation often overlaps with everyone trying to put forward their point of view, and director Daniel Buckroyd has done a brilliant job keeping the focus exactly where it ought to be so the audience doesn’t miss a thing.

A very cleverly crafted play, often very funny and frequently "non PC", yet dealing with serious issues, and sometimes wrapping their racist or bigoted views within jokes.

Performances are all so good, so real and so engaging that the audience is completely captivated, hanging on every word and wondering at the outcome. As life, though, there never is an ‘outcome’. Things change, move on, and come around again in a slightly different form.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor