A review is a strange beast. To judge from the slew of four- and five-star offerings bestowed upon Bruce Norris' 2010 Clybourne Park (not to mention the awards – the Tonys, the Oliviers, the Pulitzers), one might expect it to be a transformative experience, a play which leaves you enriched. I certainly went in secretly hoping that it might be the kind of art that would force me, against my natural reserve, to turn to my seatly neighbour afterwards, tears brimming, and declare, 'thank God we're both alive at this moment, to witness this'.
Perhaps I expect too much of theatre. This is a good play, a solid, thoughtfully-written play, and I had a good night out. Perhaps this sounds like I'm damning the experience with faint praise, which I don't mean to; it's just that, given the rapturous reviews I couldn't help but see while reading about the play, I'd rather set myself up for a bit of a fall. I chuckled, but I didn't hoot; I felt wistful, but I didn't weep. For me, the script didn't quite go far enough or deep enough.
That's not to berate the production, which is cleverly staged and very deftly acted by a highly watchable ensemble. In 1959 we meet peripheral characters from the immediate prelude to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun: a house, in a nosy white neighbourhood, has been sold to a black family. The garrulous Bev – highly-strung, gung-ho in that desperate 1950s way, as played by a versatile Rebecca Manley – and her husband, the enjoyably morose Russ (Mark Womack), are skipping their environs for a shorter commute and, it turns out, to escape the ghosts of the past. Bev invites the excruciating pastor Jim (a fittingly squirmy William Troughton) to try and perk her husband up. Add to this the pathologically 'decent' Karl (Ben Deery) who, along with his deaf and heavily pregnant wife Betsy (Rebecca Oldfield), has come to warn Bev and Russ about 'exactly what kind of people' are moving into the neighbourhood; Francine (Gloria Onitiri), the househelp quietly trying to get on with her own life and out of the increasing mounting domestic tension; and her obliging husband Albert (Wole Sawyerr), and we have a great setting for a farce. But the farce isn't, somehow, quite delivered. Sure, a man of God gets punched in the face; a precious trunk is dropped down the stairs; objects and relationships get cracked – but it's still a bit short on laughs.
Not so the second act, which has skimmed us forward 50 years to the same house, and this time to an insufferable white couple attempting home improvements on a place rich with black history. This is really where the play comes into its own. Norris seems much more at ease writing for the present, and so, therefore, do the cast tuck in to meatier dialogue with aplomb. It's all more comfortable – we know where we are, and the issue of race is presented in the wise-guy air-quotes of the ironic twenty-first century. The cast – Oldfield and Sawyerr deserve particular mention here – know how to handle this, and us, and accordingly the second half raises the comedy game. And the truly unexpected pathos of the ending (which I won't spoil here) adds just the right garnish of sadness to make me turn to my neighbour and say, if not 'thank God we're alive', at least 'that was good, wasn't it?'