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‘Clybourne Park’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Clybourne Park, Park Theatre, 2022
Photo by Mark Douet

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Bruce Norris’s provocative 2010 satire hasn’t dated horribly, but feels overwhelmed by the reality of MAGA-era America

Revivals of hit plays can be odd things: some huge smashes can run for years then be ignored for decades. Nonetheless, it’s not surprising that the second UK production of Bruce Norris’s enormo-hit ‘Clybourne Park’ is far lower key than the first. The discourse on race relations and white privilege has moved on a lot since it premiered to blockbuster effect at the Royal Court in 2010. And the liberal Obama-era America it satirises no longer exists. 

So a race-relations comedy celebrated for its outrageousness feels like a definite hot potato in 2022. In fact, ‘Clybourne Park’ is much more measured than I remember it, with the Black characters – played by Aliyah Odoffin and Eric Underwood – perhaps wisely underwritten as the sensible straight people, horrified observers to the terrible behaviour of the white characters. 

Set in the titular fictional Chicago neighbourhood in 1959 and 2009, it’s the first half that stands up best, as we meet the brooding Russ (Richard Lintern) and fretful Bev (Imogen Stubbs), a couple traumatised by the suicide of their soldier son, who was irreparably scarred by atrocities he committed against civilians in the Korean War. 

They’re preparing to move out of the house, to a fresh start. But the great and the good of Clybourne Park community have just discovered they’ve sold up to a Black family, and they’re not happy. It’s excruciating, as Andrew Langtree’s hypnotically obnoxious neighbourhood busybody Karl explains with expansive assurance why ‘coloured’ people wouldn’t enjoy their neighbourhood, even attempting to rope their Black maid’s husband Albert (Underwood) to back him up. Crucially, though, it’s not that funny: yes, there are a couple of laughs. But really it’s an astute and damning portrait of the underside of America’s oft-romanticised ‘50s, a nation divided by race and traumatised by war, gearing up for the tumult of the ’60s.

By contrast, the second half, set in the early years of the Obama administration, is funnier but has far less to really say. Here we see white flight reversing into gentrification: white couple Steve (Longtree) and Lindsey (Katie Matsell) have bought the house in the now Black neighbourhood and are planning to level it and build a bigger one. They are working through a series of concerns from the Black neighbours as represented by Underwood’s Kevin and Odoffin’s Lena, who earnestly tries to explain the historical importance of the neighbourhood – ie why it would be bad to build a horrible modern mansion in it – to total befuddlement from Steve, and right on incomprehension from Lindsey. 

It all builds to the play’s most infamous scene, a series of tensely-delivered jokes about race that remain queasily funny. But the section has lost its edge. In 2010 Norris’s thesis was that whether or not it voted for Obama, white America was essentially racist. But to put it bluntly, with America currently umming and ahhing over whether it wants to become a fullblown fascist ethno-state, points that felt stinging in 2010 feel quaint now. Yes, Steve is thoroughly obnoxious and has delusions of persecution that might well have grown into full-blown MAGA-ism given another ten years. But he is a considerably more sympathetic human being than any given Trump supporter you’ll see on any given American news programme.

It’s a solid production from director Oliver Kaderbhai, of a play that stands up well enough. Could it ever become a smash hit again? The first half of Norris’s play stands up really well. The second, I fear, has been overtaken by America’s decline. What was once a vicious rebuke of white privilege is now a nostalgic reminder of a happier time.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£18.50-£32.50, £16.50-£23.50 concs. Runs 2hr 20min
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