Clybourne Park (Richmond Theatre)

Clybourne Park (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday, April 30th)

Another week, another thought-provoking play, another superb cast, and another first rate touring production.

Richmond Theatre is serving up treat after treat this year, and as one of just six regional venues staging the Mercury Theatre Colchester production of the compelling Clybourne Park it and its audiences can count themselves truly privileged.

Going on tour with an Olivier, a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for the play under its belt the production has much to live up to – but this version can only gild its reputation further.

Bruce Norris’s 2010 drama is a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun but it’s far from important to know anything about the original to appreciate this well-crafted parallel play which raises tough questions about power and prejudice.

The first half is set in a white middle class neighbourhood of Chicago in 1959 and fears of locals are stirred when it transpires a black couple plan to buy a house for sale. The second act jumps forward 50 years to the same house in what is now a predominantly black neighbourhood, which a white couple is attempting to gentrify.

As the same actors play different roles in both eras what ensues is a fascinating glimpse of American life in the suburbs, what lies behind historic prejudices, and how personal resentment and grief can inform private and public actions as well as nurture shocking hypocrisy.

The drama is beautifully and cleverly written, with events in one act being reflected directly in the other, in a style reminiscent of one of Priestley’s time plays. Outrageously racist remarks sit alongside seemingly innocent discussions about ski-ing and knowledge of country’s capitals and in both the 50s and the Noughties emotions run high. Buried in the race and social issues is the tragic story of a couple’s son, rejected by the community after returning from war.

The writing style is blunt and often shocking, so it is to the credit of director Daniel Buckroyd that the action is so seldom in your face and the neat nuances can be carefully explored. Some stand-out performances from a great cast also prevent the whole piece descending into caricature.

Particularly impressive is the always excellent Ben Deery, in Act One the intense, tactless Rotarian fearful for the collapse of society should a black couple move in to the area, while in Act Two he’s the equally tactless homebuyer caring little about destroying an area of cultural and historical significance by his development wishes. It’s a high-intensity performance that finds both the inherent unpleasantness and humour of the character.

Rebecca Oldfield is his wife in both acts, at first physically deaf then a politically incorrect housebuyer embarrassed by the realities of the issues around her, while William Troughton is terrific as the ineffective clergyman and the gay lawyer.  

Gloria Onitri is perfect casting as passive home help Francine (bold only to her husband) and later as the sharply contrasting and vocal Lena, provocatively questioning how the sense of culture and history will be reduced with the arrival of upwardly mobile newcomers. Wole Sawyerr is good too as her husband in both eras, subservient in one and confident and defiantly proud in the other.

Mark Womack and Rebecca Manley are exceptionally well-matched as the grieving husband and neurotic wife in the 50s whose struggle to cope with their loss leads to tensions, returning in Act Two as blunt workman Dan and irritating lawyer Kathy.

It’s a bold, intelligent and effective production that pulls no punches, leaves the audience with a sense of discomfort and dares to wonder if hopes and dreams are enough to salvage a lost society. Credit all round for a production that gives touring theatre such a good name.

David Guest

Photo, Robert Day