Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th July 2022
Bruce Norris’s award-winning piece is a play of two halves. Set in the same house, acts one and two are fifty years apart, with two sets of characters. We begin in 1959, and Russ and Bev are packing up to move out. There is a kind of cosy sit-com banter between them, but soon a thread of darkness is revealed. Their lives have been blighted by tragedy: their son, home from the Korean war, and unable to live with the atrocities he committed, has killed himself. Concerned parties gather: the local clergyman, the local busybody… they’ve got wind that the buyers are ‘coloured’… Whoops, there go the property values.
What starts as amusing becomes savagely funny. Director Stewart Snape gets the rises and falls, the crescendos and clashes pitch perfect, enabling his excellent cast to shine. The mighty Colin Simmonds makes the naturalism seem effortless as mild-mannered Russ, who is provoked to explosive invective, in a well-judged portrayal. He is strongly supported by Liz Plumpton’s excitable Bev, while James David Knapp is exquisitely monstrous as the racist busybody trying to put a stop to the sale, and Paul Forrest is delightfully irritating as the dog-collared Jim. Conducting herself with supreme dignity is Shemeica Rawlins as the housemaid, Francine, with Papa Anoh Yentumi making a strong impression as her husband Albert.
Fifty years later (what a long interval that was!) and the tables have turned. A young white couple wish to demolish the house, now dilapidated and covered in graffiti, in a bid to gentrify the area, despite objections voiced by people who have grown up there during the intervening decades. There are parallels to be made with white people taking over the land and property of others, I suppose, but the discourse in this second half is not as clear cut as the first. The characters are preoccupied with language, particularly when someone (James David Knapp again, as a different, equally monstrous character!) cracks an inappropriate joke. Thus, the topic shifts more to what is considered offensive and who is ‘allowed’ to be offended, before a final coda takes us back to the 50s, and the doomed son writing his suicide note, a reminder that people do much worse things to each other than make jokes, but also that such jokes are also a form of violence and oppression.
It’s an electrifying evening of theatre. The play provokes more than it answers, which is how it should be, in my view, and there is a lot of fun to be had seeing the cast play roles diametrically opposed to their first-act personas. Grace Cheadle’s ‘woke’ Lindsey couldn’t be further from the insipid Betsy from act one! There are echoes in the script, turns of phrase, lines of argument, that reoccur, suggesting that people haven’t, society hasn’t, changed. Which is a depressing thought, but it’s delivered in a hugely entertaining way by a company of actors of the highest quality.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆