Writer: Bruce Norris
Director: Dominic Cooke
Reviewer: David Ralf
‘Mr Norris, Mr Lustgarden, do stop looking at each other’s work!’ One economic satire snaps at another’s heels at The Royal Court, and despite incredible similarities in tone, argument and even some scenes Bruce Norris’ The Low Road ultimately packs a more dramatic punch than Anders Lustgarten’s If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep as the more entertaining and shrewd play.
The Low Road is Bruce Norris’s third play for the Royal Court, following the lauded Clybourne Park, and also marks the final play directed by Dominic Cooke as Artistic Director. And it proves to be a captivating and fun final outing for Cooke throughout, as a great evening in the theatre should be, even as it focuses on familiar economic material. Set (mostly) in late 1700s New England before and during the American War of Independence, and narrated wryly by none other than contemporary economist Adam Smith (the joyously sardonic Bill Paterson), questions of regulation, taxation, property and the free market are ripe for examination. Indeed here slavery is still available to Norris to use as the most extreme example of unregulated markets and absolutely property. Add to that highway robbery, prostitution and the infancy of creative accounting, and this is a stage set for a debate worth warring over.
Norris recently claimed in an interview that he disliked “when people seem to think they know the answers or their mind is made up about something”. But it’s fair to say that he sets up his protagonist Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) for a fall, having him in his early youth stumble across the famous paragraph of Adam Smith’s work promising that ‘an invisible hand’ works for the good of all when each individual acts in their own self-interest. Trumpett becomes the living embodiment of this maxim, armed too with the misleading promise of legitimacy and inheritance from a ‘G Washington of Virginia’. Soon he has obfuscated the finances of his adoptive mother’s brothel, cheerfully skimming his self-interest off the top. Flynn achieves the impossible by making this “hateful beast” likeably cheeky throughout—or perhaps unregulated selfishness is something a London audience cheerfully recognises as all too familiar.
It’s a farcical satire throughout, and a very human one, as Flynn descends into completely despicable behaviour, which recommends it above the slightly clinical sketches of If You Don’t Let Us Dream We Won’t Let You Sleep’s first half. But like Lustgarten’s play if suffers from a desire to be bleeding-edge contemporary, and at the start of the second half Norris gives us a 20-minute economic panel discussion on capitalism featuring one of Trumpett’s decendants, replete with Occupy protest and an Anonymous Guy Fawkes mask I’m certain was borrowed from the propsmaster of Lustgarten’s play. This from Norris, who has previously claimed that “you can’t write an interesting play about what happened in the past five years, because it’s so mundane.” The detour is unnecessary in a three-hour evening, and one which drives home the revolutionary spirit of this play a little too resoundingly. As the play returns to the 1700s, and an even more fantastically satirical final five minutes, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the play is telling when it was doing so much more with showing.
This is all to quibble with an incredibly filthy-mouthed, funny, irreverent, almost pantomimic romp which for the most part provides a lesson in how to make complex ideas come to life on stage. A inventive, important and knowing comedy.
Runs until 11th May 2013.