There is a danger when a new play gets a West End transfer that it is carried across London on an excess of hyperbole, which it then cannot sustain. The Royal Court, where Clybourne Park started its life, has an excellent reputation for launching gems – most notably with Jerusalem last year. Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park had audiences in raptures and accolades a-plenty for director Dominic Cook. While this production does eventually justify the hype, the first half hour or so was tough-and-go.
The moments that should have been laugh-out-loud funny were merely enough to raise a smile, and Sophie Thompson’s voice (Bev/Kathy) was grating on my nerves. The first half, set in the 1950s, was a little stilted, a little too restrained, without enough biting satire or comic relief. Stuart McQuarrie’s Russ was so reserved that Thompson’s slightly hysterical Bev was even shriller in contrast, and McQuarrie’s human, moving reaction to his son’s suicide was diminished by the sudden escalation from soft to loud, from politeness to swearing. Cook could have done more to develop some more subtlety in what could have been a more interesting character. Robert Innes Hopkins’s set was fantastic – capturing the stifling civility of small-town America in the 50s, with racial tensions bubbling just beneath the surface.
The second half, though, redeemed the first, and took the play to a whole new level. Norris’s script suddenly took off, becoming sharp, pacey and witty. It also found a good balance between seriously funny and uncomfortably funny. He has a nice line in making you laugh, then think, then feel slightly guilty. The cast seemed more at home in their own time period, too, and the disintegration of civil relations was hilarious and horrifying to watch. I remain unconvinced that the sub-plot of a suicidal son was necessary: it bracketed the story neatly, but I felt that it was a little too pat, an unnecessary tying up of ends that weren’t all that loose.
So, Clybourne Park deserves the hype, but is not flawless. I saw the first preview, and hope it will bed in a bit and become more fluid and fluent as the run progresses. The first half is about ten minutes too long, and would benefit greatly from being pacier. The cast are generally a little over-the-top in the first half, their reactions melodramatic and there are not enough emotional shades of grey. The second half, however, was worth the trip alone.