Frances McNamee

Clybourne Park

04/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

According to Rapture Theatre’s artistic director Michael Emans, Bruce Norris’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner is all about “exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class, educated people, who will happily uphold the principles of fairness and equality – unless and until those principles impinge on their own interests.” If this is the intention behind Clybourne Park, then it is wholly successful. This play is tragic, profound, and uproariously funny – but it’s also an uncomfortable watch, skewering the liberal self-image of the typical theatre-goer.

The action takes place in the living room of a large house in a Chicago suburb, with two acts separated by fifty years. In 1959, affluent white couple Bev (Jackie Morrison) and Russ (Robin Kingsland) are selling up. They need to escape the home where their son killed himself; they can’t bear to stay. But their neighbour, Karl (Jack Lord), is dismayed to learn that, because of the cheap asking price, the purchasers are a black family; he doesn’t want ‘colored’ people moving in and lowering the tone – or the house prices.

This first act is easy for a white liberal audience member like me: as expected, I’m appalled by Karl’s racism, embarrassed by his appeal to black servant, Francine (Adelaide Obeng), and her husband, Albert (Vinta Morgan), to back him up. I’m drawn to Bev and Russ, stricken by loss, dragged unwillingly into Karl’s drama.

The second act is both more playful and more challenging. It’s 2009, and the neighbourhood is now mostly black. Young white couple, Lindsey (Frances McNamee) and Steve (Jack Lord) have bought the house; they want to bulldoze it and rebuild from scratch. Community group members, Lena (Adelaide Obeng) and Kevin (Vinta Morgan), have objected to the plans. The neighbourhood has historical significance, Lena maintains. People like Lindsey and Steve can’t just trample over that.

Steve is quick to feel the slight; he’s certain he knows what Lena really means. She doesn’t want them there because they’re white.

And, before we know it, a huge row has erupted, and no one is safe from the fallout. It’s excruciating and toe-curling, as one line after another is crossed.

In essence, Clybourne Park is a comedy of manners, a satirical examination of societal standards and behaviour in the US. Has anything really changed since the 1950s? It would seem not, and the doubling of roles highlights this. Steve clearly thinks all anti-racist talk is fake, a façade belying people’s real beliefs. Lindsey’s painfully right-on posturing is exposed as a fragile edifice, while lawyer Kathy (Jackie Morrison)’s paper-thin skin prevents her from ever seeing beyond her own nose. Lena, on the other hand,  clearly delights in stirring things up; her politeness is only a veneer; she wants to rattle Steve and Lindsey out of their self-satisfaction.

The performances are excellent, Lord in particular wringing every ounce of comic potential from his angry-white-man routine. The script is expertly realised in this production, every line given the space to breathe, each joke and jibe the chance to land.

It’s classy, thought-provoking stuff.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

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The Last Ship

12/06/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Last Ship has a new book by director Lorne Campbell to complement Sting’s music and lyrics – and it’s a remarkable piece of work. The earlier version, which opened in Chicago in 2014, enjoyed only moderate success; this latest incarnation perhaps explains why: there’s something so decidedly British about it, it’s no surprise it didn’t quite translate.

Based on Sting’s own experience of growing up in the shadow of a Tyneside shipyard, it tells the story of the workers, who are sold out by management and MPs, victims of the Ridley plan to cut government spending and weaken their trade unions. It’s the 1980s; the miners’ strike has already shaken the country to its core. The ship-builders know they are likely to lose their fight, but they’re resolute: they’ll do what it takes to keep their yard open, to complete the ship they’ve been working on, to prevent it being sold for scrap. Because, as their foreman Jackie (Joe McGann) remind us, it’s all they’ve got, their entire community built around these jobs.

Meanwhile, Gideon (Richard Fleeshman) is back in town, after seventeen long years at sea. He didn’t want to work in the shipyards, so he sailed away instead, even though it meant leaving his girlfriend behind; it was the price he had to pay. He’s surprised to discover Meg (Frances McNamee) is still there, running the local pub these days, as well as a few other businesses – and there’s a greater surprise in store for him, namely the rebellious wannabe musician, Ellen (Katie Moore), the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Awkward.

If the story is a little hackneyed, it doesn’t really matter: it’s a strong enough hook for the action, and the music works its magic, the choral numbers especially rousing and anthemic, with lots of Celtic riffs and foot-stamping to spare. The characters are engaging and their plight adroitly told. I especially like the chorus of working men, who are clearly delineated, a real set of diverse people rather than a faceless mass: there are poets here as well as pissheads, softies as well as swaggerers.

But it’s the design by 59 Productions that really elevates this musical: an industrial shell of a set enhanced by truly awesome projections, their grandeur and precision a thing of real wonder, transporting us in an instant from picket-line to fireside, from stormy seas to cosy pub. There is real mastery in this art.

The closing speech is a stirring one, all the more so because it’s delivered by Ellen, the youngest character in the play. It speaks of hope and direct action, of the people taking back control, refusing to be cowed by fat cats and corporations. All power to ’em, I say. And all power to this show.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield