The Whingers have been on something a journey with Bruce Norris plays at the Royal Court.
The Pain and the Itch and The Low Road top and tail Dominic Cooke‘s tenure at the Court. The former saw a rare Whingers’ schism, the latter an even bigger one as Andrew turned down the opportunity to attend.
The ‘taste the difference’ jam sandwiched between those aforesaid works was Norris’ hilarious Clybourne Park which saw us unanimous in fulsome admiration; Andrew was so enthralled he returned for a second viewing. High praise indeed.
Despite Phil dangling two of Andrew’s 5-a-day; the twin carrots of Norris’ 100% hit rate with Andrew and the WEW-endorsed Simon Paisley Day‘s inclusion in the cast he was having none of it. If only Phil had kept quiet schtum about the original advertised running time of 3 hours 20 minutes (now clipped to a mere 3 hours).
So, this piece is Norris’ ’fable of free market economics and cut-throat capitalism’ performed as a swashbuckling pageant, mainly in 18th century New England, by way of prostitution, slavery, highway robberies and bees.
Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn, swaggeringly devil-may-care), possibly the bastard son of George Washington is dumped as a baby on the steps of a brothel and grows up to manage the establishment’s finances whilst taking a tidy cut for himself along the way. From here he embarks on a journey down the low road to greed, forming a literal attachment to a slave (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith‘s engaging and dignified John Blanke) and we follow their fortunes and misfortunes and Jim’s social-climbing and grasping entrepreneurial ambition. All is presented through a series of chapters by Bill Paterson‘s superbly dry and teasing fourth wall-breaking economics pioneer Adam Smith.
The first Act rattles along splendidly and if the baggier Act 2 never quite lives up to that it does open with the funniest scene of the play; a present-day economic summit where smugly patronising financial experts answer questions about the crisis. Elizabeth Berrington’s chairperson is particularly hilarious, but everyone gets their comedy moment as the panel struggle to answer “How many houses do you have?” On this day: two, as it happened; this was a matinee day.
Michael Billington compared it to Candide, but perhaps politeness prevented him pointing out that both also share a single-buttock plot point. One is led to wonder how Mr Flynn applies his buttock’s birthmark. Or are there make up people bending over backwards for the job to prevent him bending over backwards himself?
Tom Pye’s rough and ready sets locate us neatly and (appropriately) economically. Cooke marshals the epic and his large cast smoothly. The players appear to relish their multiple roles, Ian Gelder, Paisley Day, Natasha Gordon and especially Berrington stand out as pertly as Mr Flynn’s buttocks.
Who knew capitalism could be such fun? The tone is playfully satirical throughout, though frequently indulgent and unsubtle; the sledgehammer needs to be replaced with pruning shears especially for the epilogue which is so head-scratchingly bananas (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) it suggests how a 70s episode of Doctor Who may have looked had Stephen Spielberg got his hands on it. Bonkers.