Clive Hirschhorn reviews Bruce Norris’s new play The Low Road at the Royal Court Theatre

The Low Road at the Royal Court

The Low Road at the Royal Court

Dominic Cooke, the artistic director of the enterprising Royal Court, has chosen, as his farewell production, a new play by American playwright Bruce Norris, whose previous play at the Court – Clybourne Park (2010) garnered a slew of awards for all concerned. It was one of the company’s biggest hits ever, as a consequence of which it was revived in New York where it won a Pulitzer Prize as well as the Tony award. Here it won an Olivier as well as winning the Evening Standard award for best new play.

While it is unlikely that The Low Road, Norris’s latest offering, will walk away with the same kind of honours, it’s an appropriate finale to Cooke’s tenure at this address. For like Cooke himself, it’s bold, it takes risks and has something to say. And while it is too long by at least a half an hour and unravels somewhat in its last fifteen minutes, I also found it an exhilarating romp. And often very very funny.

If racial hypocrisy was the backbone of Clybourne Park, capitalism (and its intendant evils) is the main signpost on this particular road. And just as, constitutionally, it is the right of every American to protect himself by owning a gun, it is equally the right of every American to improve his lot by accumulating as much money as he can, regardless of who gets hurt in the process. Well, isn’t it?

I have no idea what Norris’s views on America’s gun-culture are, but his play leaves you in no doubt what he thinks about the excesses of financial greed. And although what he is saying is hardly innovative or earth-shattering, he has chosen a deliciously engaging way of saying it.

The time is 1759, the place Massachusetts. A foundling, whose father we are led to believe is one G. Washington of Virginia, is left on the doorstep of a local brothel, is given the name Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) by the establishment’s madame (Elizabeth Berrington) and grows up to be obsessed with money, the making of it, and the best use to put it to.

Ownership is the main item on his capitalistic agenda and it extends to buying a slave called John Blanke (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), whose initial appearance and manner turn out to be very deceptive indeed.

The picaresque adventures they share both individually and in tandem, drive the narrative, with Brechtian-like interjections from a droll narrator (Bill Paterson) who moves anachronistically from the past to the present with a wry, knowing humour. One scene even takes place in the present: at a global conference on the pros and cons of capitalism.

The period vernacular in which Norris has chosen to express his characters’s thoughts and feelings works very convincingly, and a dinner party scene in act two, in which Jim has elevated himself to the status of financial adviser to a well-connected New York business man (John Ramm) who, much to Jim’s irritation has forged a strong bond with Blanke, crackles with tension from start to finish.

But the ending and the coup d’theatre it involves, struck me as too contrived. It’s meant to close the play with an exclamation mark but does just the opposite.

Cooke directs this vigorous piece with, well – vigour, the performances, notably from Johnny Flynn and Bill Paterson, are most engaging, while the rest of the large cast – some 20 of them in all – give boisterous accounts of themselves.

Its flaws notwithstanding, this is a fitting finale for one of the Royal Court’s best-ever artistic directors. May he thrive in whatever he chooses to do next.

CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

Reprinted by kind permission of This Is London

LINKS

Royal Court Theatre