Review – The Low Road, Royal Court

Tuesday 9 April 2013

The low Road.inddThe 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.




8 Responses to “Review – The Low Road, Royal Court”

  1. Ged Ladd Says:

    Daisy and I saw this production on its first preview. It wasn’t meant to be the first preview but “technical problems” prevented the Friday night show. “Technical problems” also delayed our start time by 25 minutes or so, prompting an apologetic speech from Dominic Cooke.

    There was a smell of freshly sawn wood, which I suspect was the material around which the technical problems revolved.

    Dominic said that no-one had seen the production before, not even the performers and production staff, so we should expect anything except for a smooth performance. We weren’t disappointed. The performance, much like the play, was all over the place. When we staggered out of the first half at just before 10:00 pm, wild horses would have struggled to drag us back in.

    I read the second half when we got home and was glad for the lack of wild horses.

    We loved Clynebourne Park and The Pain & The Itch, but this piece is a lemon. It’s a one idea play (unless you count the buttock mark as an idea) and a not especially clever or insightfully executed idea at that.

    A rare miss by messrs Morris and Cooke.

  2. Ged Ladd – you admit this was a first preview / dress rehearsal and yet you dismiss this as a lemon and criticise without even seeing the second half – crystal ball gazing indeed! Wild horses or not, I saw it a week into its run when all went smoothly, hilariously, and even thoughtfully. It’s a fun piece, even at three hours, worth the time, effort and, yes, the money (especially at Royal Court rock-bottom prices for this splendid cast). I would recommend you give it another go, except I suspect your views have now been securely banked.

    • Ged Ladd Says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed yourself but we shall not be going back.

      Three lessons for sound investing:
      1) pull out of bad investments before your losses get worse;
      2) keep an eye on and learn from your losers as well as your winners;
      3) don’t throw yet more good money after bad to convince yourself that you were right all along and that the investment must come good eventually.

      I feel qualified to comment having invested two hours of time at the theatre on the first half and a further 40 minutes or so later reading the second half of the play. The second half starts well in the 21st century (I enjoyed reading that bit) but the return to the 18th century and especially the ending would have irritated me enormously on stage, I know it would.

  3. theatrefanetc Says:

    Agree with theatreguymike. Saw the show over the weekend and came away entertained not only by the artful fun storytelling, but also the thread of arguments about wealth, inequality and moral responsibility that run through. Don’t be misled by the circus-y pacing or comic narration – the arguments in Norris’ play run deep. If you’re listening.

  4. Sandown Says:

    There are two drawbacks to the subsidised theatre:

    1) self-indulgence

    2) politicisation to the left (and only to the left)

    Both of these aspects are evident, in this remarkably silly play.

    Naturally the Royal Court audience lapped it up, being mostly middle-class public sector types from places like Islington and Camden. In the real world, the problems facing the West are not the result of free market economics, but of grossly-excessive public spending.

    Perhaps we do need an alien spaceship to warn us of the consequences. But one somehow doubts it will land in Sloane Square.

    • trumpton Says:

      So reckless bankers and compassionless free-marketeers do not, in your version of events, bear any responsibility for the mire we’ve been trying to crawl out of since 2008? For you, it’s only ‘grossly-excessive public spending’. You seem to be a creature from a planet that has far less understanding of our condition than Mr Norris’ creations.

  5. Jane Darcy Says:

    I loved it. But I felt we needed a little more help with the allusions to, I think, Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees; or: Private Vices, Public Virtues (1714). See Wiki. It makes sense of Adam Smith, the bee hive, the honey and the final descent of the humming bee hive.

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