Review – The Pain and the Itch, Royal Court

Wednesday 20 June 2007

The Pain and the Itch maskThe Whingers get asked the same question again and again: “Haven’t you got homes to go to?” “Do you always agree on everything?”

Strangely enough they usually do. As Amber Cole (Jennifer Coolidge) says in A Mighty Wind: “We work together very well. It’s almost as if we have one brain that we share between us.”

But today, speaking terms are somewhat muted and cordiality has been temporarily wiped from the blackboard of their interpersonal menu.

Indeed, not since they sat through the “awful”/”enjoyable enough” (depending on which Whinger you’re listening to) Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks have the Whingers been so divided.

And who would have thought that the Whingers’ favourite, dependable whipping boy – the Royal Court Theatre – would be the cause of such a schism?

Anyway, said theatre describes Bruce Norris‘ play The Pain and The Itch as an “hilarious social satire” which takes a “withering look at phoney liberal values”. The play originated at the famous Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago before a reportedly sell-out run off-Broadway .

It is set in a smart apartment inhabited by house-husband Clay (Matthew Macfadyen), his high-earning wife Kelly (Sara Stewart) and their four year old (?) daughter Kayla (one of three actresses) who has a strange itch.

Clay’s brother Cash (Peter Sullivan) and girlfriend Kalina (Andrea Riseborough) are visiting for Thanksgiving dinner, as is Clay’s mother Carol (Amanda Boxer).

An incongruously Asian Mr Hadid (Abdi Gouhad) observes the action and occasionally interacts with the characters and we’re not sure where he fits into things.

It started very promisingly. Smart set, snow falling outside, the smell of rabbit hutch (according to Andrew) and some top notch acting as Macfayden and Stewart spark off each other and demonstrate their over-protective, over-intellectualised parenting style.

The play went on to lift up middle class liberal values and peek underneath them and while it may not have found much new, it had wit and sparkle enough to keep one’s attention through the first act and beyond.

Or so Andrew thought. He was awake (unusual for him in the Royal Court) and his disposition was sunny, blithely unaware of the storm clouds rising up at his left shoulder.

Those clouds released their downpour during the interval when Phil – although admitting to having enjoyed the first 10 minutes or so – declared it dull and obvious. He didn’t mention the snow, but said the modernist split level set – and indeed the set-up – reminded him of the vastly superior The Lady from Dubuque. Phil claims he is all for having a pop at dreary liberal parents, but he felt he’d seen it all before thought it a rather easy target. He went on (and on) to say he didn’t find it particularly witty or sharp. In fact it was as blunt as the instrument he wanted to take to Andrew’s head for having such a damn good time.

Clearly what was needed was some third party to arbitrate on the matter and settle is once and for all. As luck would have it bloggers City Slicker Liz and Helen Smith had joined the Whingers on this outing and it seems that Phil must have done some rapid jury-nobbling while Andrew’s back was turned. This he probably achieved by playing the sympathy card – announcing that it was his rather large-round-numbered birthday the next day.

Anyway, for whatever reason they took Phil’s side so it was left to Andrew to ponder whether the play was worth the effort and he still maintains it is. Although some of the satire might be new, the self-absorption and lack of perspective of people for whom being abused as a child can mean “neglect alternating with sarcasm” was – in Andrew’s humble opinion – drawn well. And the idea of what at the most fundamental level children really mean to their parents was – Andrew thought – a rarely expressed view and one worth portraying.

Anyway, it wasn’t all discord. The entire party agreed that the performances were generally excellent. Phil was even quite enjoying the performance by the screaming child, up to the point at which he would cheerfully have throttled the little moppet.

Anyway, for Phil the main value of the evening was the intense smugness he derived from having blackmailed the rest of the group the approbation of his peers; seeing Andrew in such splendid isolation only increased his delight.

Andrew, Liz, Phil and Helen at the Royal Court

Snapped again: Andrew, City Slicker, Phil, Helen
Paparazzi: Mark II

16 Responses to “Review – The Pain and the Itch, Royal Court”


  1. Whingers – Great to see a real photo of City Slicker, even if obscured by twin palms.

    I saw The Pain And The Itch at Steppenwolf in Chicago and quite enjoyed it (although I readily admit to being a Bruce Norris aficianado – and realize that his works (a) may not necessarily translate well across the pond, and (b) he is an acquired taste.

    Here’s itching for the day when I’ll be able to bask in your greatness before oncoming paparazzi, too!

  2. City Slicker Says:

    Hi All–
    Great to see you Phil and Andrew. Had a terric night!
    SOB – man, oh man, I found it dreadful: middle class navel gazing at its worst! But glad to see you are checking up on the whingers. They are ace. Such great guys. Hanging out with them saved me from the real ITCH: wanting to tar and feather Dominic Cooke!
    City Slicker xo


  3. Hmm, am going to see this next week, intrigued by both the Matthew Macfadyen factor and the Steppenwolf connection. Shall reserve judgement until then, but am rather looking forward to the next Whingers outing now…

  4. Helen Smith Says:

    Andrew, it was like Lord of the Flies – the way they turned on you and forced you to drink all that red wine after the show. I’m ashamed about it now.

  5. City Slicker Says:

    Helen-great analogy. I salute Andrew for sticking to his guns though. Especially in the face of a script that has the line “Ohhhh, do you know the word ‘souffle’?”

    I am humming Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ now…


  6. Lord of the Flies!!! Well done, yes. I knew Phil reminded me of someone. Piggy! Yes, than you Helen.

  7. City Slicker Says:

    Michael Billington gave it 4 stars??!!

    Actually maybe that just solidifies our judgement!


  8. Hmm. The same Michael Billington that gave LOTR four stars and Drowsy Chaperone only two? Hmm, maybe I should start listening to you all.
    Presumably not this Michael Billington

  9. KQ Says:

    Keep your end up, Andrew. They are all wholly wrong.
    It’s true enough to say that some of the comedy – the fake abuse claims, the strange progressive parenting, the mispronunciation – has been seen before. But new jokes are a rare thing.
    The great thing about this show was the relentless bile of it – no quarter is given to liberal woolly thinking, nor was Cash’s selfish attitude presented as anything more healthy. The whole show just screamed at the middle classes: look at you, you’re rich and that makes you bad, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not constructive, but it is honest and gutsy, and I haven’t seen a show do it with such drive before. And, City S, that’s not navel-gazing, because navel-gazing ignores the outside world, has no perspective. This play was largely about perspective, and the impossibility of achieving it. Rich men and needles was the general gist.
    The Royal Court needs this sort of scepticism, needs to remind its audiences that going along and attentively watching plays about ‘issues’ does not mean they are less to blame for them. Going to watch a play about the disadvantaged does not purge their original sin of being (mostly) born well-off in a well-off country. That’s a wonderful antidote to smugness. It keeps it real – oh yeah. I just wish this play would tour to the Tricycle.
    Now, I didn’t see The Lady, but if that show did the same thing (which I don’t reckon, from the reviews, it did), then brilliant, but a lot of theatre is about being in the right place as well as being the right play. And PATI is very much in the right place – I’m not sure it could have been as effective in one of the red velvet ratholes.


  10. Thank you KQ. Insightful and well expressed and you agree with me. Have you thought about a career in theatre criticism?

  11. Helen Smith Says:

    Andrew & KQ
    I feel we ought to be having a spat about this (all the best theatrical blogs have them) but I must admit I’ve been feeling like a cretinous heathen for not liking this play more when I saw it. It was beautifully written, beautifully played and had some good jokes in it. I didn’t dislike it, I just wished I had liked it more.

    However perhaps, after all, it has something to do with not being rich enough. That is something I have been trying to address all my life, without success. And now, on top of everything else, poverty has robbed me of the enjoyment of this play.

  12. Mikey Says:

    Having eulogised the working classes for so many years, the Royal Court now turns its attention to the middle classes. But hey, it doesn’t like them! Isn’t this the same attitude, but with the microscope pointing to a different corner? With Dominic Cooke’s much vaunted change of direction, I was looking forward to the RC taking a swipe at that shameless, lazy, Benefit grabbing, hard smoking/drinking, ungrateful underclass that we have been taught to subsidise, genuflect to, and generally feel intimidated by. As regular West End Winos, surely you can agree (both of you) that we need a bit of light relief and a target we can look down on and laugh at? With no Mike Leigh to make a laughing stock of ‘them’, what about ‘us’, where can we now go for our fix of slumming it with the under-privileged? Is there no middle-class playwright out there prepared to wave the banner on the barricades against the encroaching Brown cabinet and send the disaffected back to their towerblocks? Or have Les Miserables already won? New Royal Court regime, we look to you for some long overdue support.


  13. Saw this last night and have to say I come down on the Phil side of the divide on this one.

  14. westendwhinger Says:

    I knew we were on the same wavelength…that’ll teach Andrew to stick his neck out, he should stick to snoozing in the stalls, he enjoys it so much more anyway.

  15. tim Says:

    Neither the “rich” nor the working-class are to be found in the Royal Court audience, which consists of middle-class leftists, employed in the public-sector, and living in places like Islington and Camden Town.

    Plays of this type merely pander to their masochism, rather than to their usual social indignation.


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