Hampstead, London

Theatre review: Race - Even the lawyers are in the dock

4.00

It's black against white, man versus woman in a typically blunt David Mamet straight-talker about the law and discrimination

A black woman has accused a rich white guy of raping her in a hotel room. He's asking a law firm, comprised of one white and one black man, Lawson and Brown, to represent him. Add into the equation an African-American graduate, Susan, hired as Lawson's protégée, with her hackles raised.

David Mamet doesn't mince his words in Race. His title shouts out the contentious issue (though gender, arguably, deserves equal billing). The attorneys are post-PC, firing off brazenly challenging axioms about racial dynamics, exposing others' concealed bigotry and their own.

In director Terry Johnson's UK premiere, set in an oak-panelled office, one might weary of Jasper Britton's motor-mouthed Lawson and the epigrammatic pronouncements. Clarke Peters' Brown is magnetic, though, when quietly stewing, and Nina Toussaint-White's Susan pushes Lawson, sharply, on to the back foot. The result is an engaging brew of wit, rage, and shifting sympathies.

It's part of a surge of American plays that pore over ethnic tensions within multicultural societies. Just last week saw outstanding UK premieres of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced (in which a Manhattan lawyer spurns his Muslim roots), and Yellow Face (a knowingly twisted self-portrait by Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang). Now, at the Almeida, co-produced by Headlong and newly penned by Britain's Lucy Kirkwood, comes Chimerica (****), a globetrotting saga that hops between the People's Republic of China and the USA, 1989 and today.

In 1989, a fictionalised American photojournalist, Joe (Stephen Campbell Moore), is in Beijing. On the morning after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he captures the image of a lone citizen walking out in front a tank, and stopping it in its tracks.

In 2012, on a return visit to the city, Joe meets Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong). Zhang Lin teases his US guest about China being on the up. Yet, wracked by memories of his wife who was shot dead in the massacre, he starts slating the Republic online.

Though Joe sees himself as a liberal crusader against injustice, once back in New York he mishandles his long-distance relationship with Zhang Lin and also his avid quest to find the unidentified, heroic Tank Man. The latter, he believes, escaped to the States, land of the free. Additionally, Joe has fallen for Claudie Blakley's Tessa, a market researcher analysing how corporations woo customers in Asia.

Lyndsey Turner's production is dazzlingly fluid thanks to Es Devlin's slick design, projecting the play's various locations – planes, parks, apartment blocks and strip clubs – like giant contact prints, on a spinning cube.

Blakley's Tessa is extremely droll with a softer heart than first appears. Campbell Moore's Joe is impulsively passionate. Strong supporting performances include Sean Gilder and Trevor Cooper as hard-bitten news- hounds, and Nancy Crane doubling as a dowdy PA and swish senator. Wong's Zhang Lin, in turn, moves through despair and sweating fear to stubborn valour.

That said, the play's storylines tend to straggle, too many subplots and global zigzags slowing the momentum of Joe's hunt for the Tank Man. Yet with its concern for East-West relations, capitalism, the press and compromised ideals, Chimerica is commendably ambitious.

Lastly, the Ustinov Studio in Bath rounds off its season of American premieres with Fifty Words (Ustinov Studio, Bath ***), a two-hander by Michael Weller that seems comparatively hermetic. A New York architect (Richard Clothier) is rustling up a romantic meal for his wife (Claire Price). They're alone for once, their kid at a sleepover.

Nevertheless, their marriage is in ruins by the end of the night, wrecked by career stresses and discovered sexual infidelities. So, domesticity turns bruising in Laurence Boswell's handsomely staged, London-bound production. The disappointment is that the play's overarching structures are too neat (a phone call right on cue to engineer a plot twist). Meanwhile, minute by minute, the conversation feels disjointed, a load of building blocks without the cement of psychological segues.

 

'Race' to 29 June; 'Chimerica' to 6 July; 'Fifty Words' to 15 June, then at Arcola, London, 19 June-20 July

Critic's Choice

The new Shed auditorium on London's South Bank plays host to Mission Drift (, from Wed to 28 Jun). Devised by US experimentalists The TEAM, this award-winning saga of capitalism, set in Las Vegas, features lizard ballets and blues numbers. In East Anglia, the Pulse Festival includes Mess, Caroline Holton's play-with-songs about anorexia (Monday) and Analogue's audio piece on neuropsychology Now I am Superlatively, Actually Awake (Sat), at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.

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