Clybourne Park – Oxford Playhouse

Writer: Bruce Norris

Director: Daniel Buckroyd

Reviewer: Fergus Morgan

As one member of the audience pointed out in a lively post-show discussion following this performance of Clybourne Park at the Oxford Playhouse, Lorraine Hansberry is enjoying something of a purple patch in British theatre right now. A completed Les Blancs is playing to huge acclaim at the National, Eclipse Theatre’s tour of A Raisin In The Sun has just concluded, and now Mercury Theatre Colchester’s production of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ deliciously juicy 2010 comedy response to Raisin is raising roofs across the country.

Like all truly great comedies, Clybourne Park works because its humour grows from something really quite serious. The whole play takes place in the living room of 406, Clybourne Street, Chicago – the house that the Younger family proudly move into at the end of Raisin. The first act, set in 1959 at the same time of Hansberry’s play, presents the grieving couple selling the house. When a detestable, prevaricating representative of the neighbourhood improvement association arrives, desperately trying to prevent the Younger family’s impending move, the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the community is exposed with delectable relish.

The second act shifts the action to the present day. In the intervening five decades, Clybourne Park has transformed from a predominantly white neighbourhood to a predominantly black one, and from a desirable suburbto a dilapidated ghetto and back again. Now, it is a white family wanting to move in, and a black family tentatively resisting their plans for redevelopment. It is in this second half when an extended discussion about planning sprawls into a forum on race, on feminism, on freedom of speech, and on American history, that Norris’ play reaches both its comic and socio-political apogee. 406, Clybourne Street becomes a symbol for the changing face of America and, with naturalism and dynamism, Norris has the awkward conversations that we cannot.

Daniel Buckroyd’s production does take a while to hit its stride; the humour of the first half relies on the prudishness of 1950s America and probably tickles audiences more across the pond but the second half, with its quasi-satirical commentary on contemporary race relations, has as much relevance to 21st Century Britain as it does 21st Century America. One moment, when characters trade off outrageously unpleasant jokes against each other to see who is offended, is a spiralling, sweat-inducing, stimulating analysis of the lines we all draw in the sand that is as thought-provoking in Oxford as it is in Chicago.

The entire eight-strong cast excels. Ben Deery is infuriatingly hittable as the obliquely racist Karl in the first half and hugely enjoyable as the candid but insensitive white, middle-class male, Steve, in the second. Gloria Onitiri speaks volumes with her silence as the house’s hired help, then transforms into a defensive home-owner, proud of the area’s history and distrustful of ill-conceived change. And the rest – notably Rebecca Oldfield and William Troughton – all put in good performances. And Jonathan Fensom’s realistic living room set is good too, full of neat touches. And Buckroyd’s direction is appropriately naturalistic.

The truth is that there is just too much going on in Clybourne Park to sum it up in a few words. Norris’ play deservedly won an Olivier award in 2011 and Daniel Buckroyd’s production is lively, fresh, and stimulating, with a set of fine performances and a bucket-load of laughs. This is a laudable revival of what will go down as a classic American play.

Runs until 21 May 2016 | Image: Robert Day

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