Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, which opened at the Royal Court last September, has been devouring all the Best New Play awards. Moving neighbourhood with more ease than any of its characters, it now takes up residency in the West End. For once, when applied to this mercilessly acute look at the minefield of race in relation to property and language, the term "excruciatingly funny" is not critic-speak for "above-averagely amusing".
It concerns a dispute over the same Chicago house – first in 1959, when the locals try to pressure a departing couple to pull out of selling to a black family; then a jump to 2009, when the neighbourhood is predominantly black, and an incoming white couple find their plans to raze and rebuild questioned by an historically minded residents' association. The conception is as theatrically powerful as it is thematically penetrating, especially when – as in Dominic Cooke's superlative production – the same crack actors resurface in the different roles in later period heightening the distorted diptych effect.
An uneasy situation spirals out of control hilariously and harrowingly in both halves – with a woman desperately trying to hold things together. Norris is very good on the wacky irrationality of racism. There's a ghastly Fifties Rotarian who asks to be shown where the black skiers are, as though the sport were a perfectly free matter of preference. There's a liberal present-day female who can't see that there is anything inherently tactless and untrustworthy about claiming that "half my friends" are black. There is a climactic stand-off, provoked by a white man, to see who can crack the most breathtakingly tasteless joke against the other race.
And underlying it all is the suicide in the house of a Korean vet that shows up other cracks in American society. Sophie Thompson tears your heart as his surviving manically cheerful mother, but then all the acting is out of this world. Essential.
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