It’s been three years since Bruce Norris’s caustic race relations satire ‘Clybourne Park’ burned a hole through the Royal Court and West End, and while London has seen plenty of jolly farces and elegantly mirthsome comedies since then, it’s been too long since we had a hit of the hard stuff.
This is the month the drought ends, though: his new Royal Court play ‘The Low Road’ opens in a couple of weeks, and before that the Gate is treating us to the long overdue UK premiere of this painful 2002 comedy.
The year is 1972, and thirtysomething Vietnam widow Carla (Amelia Lowdell) is grappling with guilt, self-loathing, alcoholism, her hyperactive, hypersmart son Thor (Oliver Coopersmith) and her monstrously passive aggressive ex-mother-in-law Grace (Linda Broughton). Into the tense living room set of Christopher Haydon’s production steps Purdy (Trevor White), an inscrutable Vietnam veteran with an artificial hand and a very peculiar story about having met Carla in a military hospital.
It’s a cracking play, a smart excoriation of sentimental assumptions about veterans and war widows that shows Norris’s fantastically caustic language and scathing contempt for polite society was in place long before his big West End hit.
The first half of Haydon’s production is acerbic fun, building old dear Grace into an astoundingly upsetting creation. Played superbly by Broughton, she is a crumpled mattress of a woman who grinds Carla down with a slow avalanche of hurt looks, failed empathy and old-fashioned small-mindedness. And in the second half the darkness in the writing is allowed to bite, as the fight inside Carla fails and Purdy finally reveals exactly why it is he came.
Hayden’s production is occasionally a bit static, but the scabrous wit is served well by an exemplary cast. It’s not as laugh out load as Norris’s later stuff – though you will laugh out loud – but it’s more genuinely likeable, with a tangible, angry compassion for damaged ordinary Americans touched by foreign wars they barely comprehend. Andrzej Lukowski