The Pain and the Itch

Bruce Norris
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2007)

It takes time to reach resolution, but The Pain and the Itch is a high quality comedy/drama looking at the problems of an overly-affluent America today. This import from Steppenwolf in Chicago is the first play that Dominic Cooke has directed since he became Artistic Director and it works well on many levels - and he does it well, gradually building tension to a satisfying climax.

On the surface, it is a comedy about a bickering, dysfunctional family who are well off but don't seem to know it. Beneath, it is a harsh indictment of the society that has spawned them and their attitudes.

The play operates in a dual time frame, cleverly delineated by Hugh Vanstone's lighting, which, like the action, doesn't get close to rose-tinted in either. First, the family has invited a recently bereaved Asian cab driver, with whom they apparently have nothing in common, to visit their home one snowy night.

They then begin to relate the tale of a disastrous Thanksgiving get together that will feel familiar to their English counterparts who have suffered a traditional family Christmas where murder seems on the cards until the in-laws are finally packed off for another year.

This scary celebration soon becomes a chance to hear what Tom Wolfe described as Masters of the Universe, even if second rate exhibits of the species, "hopelessly in love with the sounds of their own voices".

We are in the stylish, modern home of Clay and Kelly, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins to be spacious and claustrophobic, as required. Popular screen star Matthew Macfadyen plays a meek, golf playing house-husband seemingly happily married to Sara Stewart's politically-correct careerist.

The show is constantly stolen though, by their older child Kaya, played with silent mischief on opening night by Shannon Kelly. One main plot strand revolves around this 4-5 year old, who itches between her legs for unaccountable reasons. She may also have discovered some unseen monster with a penchant for avocados.

The stress levels with a newly-born baby and a sick daughter would be high anyway but when Amanda Boxer, playing Clay's well-intentioned mother Carol, comes on the scene with incipient Alzheimer's and a mission to put her foot in her mouth as often as possible, comedy is guaranteed.

Nor is the supposedly happy occasion helped by Clay's plastic surgeon brother Cash, played by Peter Sullivan, or his wife. Karina (note the similarity in all of the names) is a Russian mail order bride given wonderful comic humanity by up and coming star Andrea Riseborough.

She adds a great vein of humour but by presenting a view so different from her pampered, right-on hosts, she offers a fresh perspective, even if she struggles to say that word. She also gets into what might be the best stage marital fight since George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

In a fascinating final scene, two different mysteries are cleared up turning The Pain and the Itch from a satire on American life in the Bush era of "empty Starbucks materialism" into something much darker.

All of this is watched by the Asian visitor, an observer who periodically chats with the guests. Only when the play seems over does he step in to tie up loose ends. Then, he releases a whirlwind of revelation that explains all that has gone before and leaves the audience stunned.

The Pain and the Itch is both an acerbic social comedy about the hypocrisy of liberal America and a human drama. Norris balances the two elements well and also injects a thread of psychological thriller. After seeing it, some may decide that they do not wish to visit America if it is as heartless as portrayed here. Even fewer would now dare to accept an invitation to a family celebration.

Bruce Norris is the inheritor of the mantle worn by the likes of Albee, Shepard or Mamet and, judging by this play, could hold his head high in such company.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher