The US dramatist Bruce Norris (The Pain and the Itch) delights in undermining liberal complacencies.
In his outrageously funny and squirm-inducing new play, he trains his satirical sights on the explosive subject of race and the taboos controlling how we talk about it. His Clybourne Park receives its English premiere in a superlatively performed production by Dominic Cooke.
Clybourne Park has a venerable theatrical ancestry. It's the all-white Chicago neighbourhood into which the hopeful black Younger family aspires to move in A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama about the difficulties of integration. In the first act of his play, Norris has had the productive and provocative notion of creating a back story for that classic. We're permitted to eavesdrop on the white couple who, having sold their house to the Youngers, are vainly pressurised by the white community to undo the deal. The second act fast-forwards to 2009 where the tables are seemingly turned.
In both periods, the disputants blunder across the conversational minefield of race with excruciatingly comic results. Martin Freeman pulls off a brilliant double. In the first half, he's the most racist of the characters – Karl Lindner, whose attempts to stop the sale are breathtakingly tactless. In the second, he's the oddly complementary Steve, the more-tolerant-than-thou white newcomer whose peeved efforts to bring the underlying racial antagonism out into the open expose him to the aggrieved charge of trying to tar the black representatives with racism and then trigger a disgracefully funny contest in which the unsmiling participants test one another's limits by telling escalatingly offensive jokes. It's an irony not lost on Steve that he picked up his gag from his one black acquaintance and it's no wonder that his pregnant wife (excellent Sarah Goldberg) is flustered into making the tellingly crass claim that "half my friends are black".
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