Originally debuted at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs last year, Clybourne Park made the grown up leap onto the Wyndham stage with great panache. What the RC may have done for the intimate scenes, the Wyndham makes up with room for Robert Innes Hopkins’ magnificent set. Norris packs the action with as many conventions of American drama as he possibly can: race, war, gender, class culminating in a brilliant satire on the genre as a whole.
The play opens in 1959 Chicago: moving boxes piled high in an immaculate reproduction of an American suburban home, and Stuart McQuarrie as ‘Russ’ sitting listening to a wireless and eating ice cream out of a tub. Sophie Thompson, as his middle-aged Stepford wife Bev, clucks around the stage, her jarring accent and innate chatter a fantastic foil to his depressed lethargy.
Unbeknownst to Russ and Bev, their house has been sold to the neighbourhood’s first black family, and their neighbours, the jovial minister Jim (Sam Spruell), Rotarian Karl (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his deaf wife Betsy (Sarah Goldberg), come around to try and cajole them into changing the terms of the sale. In a hilarious sequence of barely suppressed racism, marital tensions, and property snobbery, the play unravels.
The tragic twist which runs through the otherwise highly comic first act is a Miller-esque letter, written by Bev and Russ’ son Kenneth (Michael Goldsmith), explaining his suicide a few years previously. Branded as a murderer of civilians in the Korean war, Kenneth hangs himself in the family home, to be found by the black domestic help, Francine. Norris’ script keeps this climactic revelation short, avoiding overt emotional scenes through the bigoted interjections of Karl.
Fifty years later in the same, but much dilapidated home, Norris’ great feat is in the double casting, thus continuing the race and class conflict of Act I’s 50’s into 2009 of Act II. Here a white couple, Steve (Campbell Moore) and Lindsey (Goldberg), a black couple, Lena (Lorna Brown) and Kevin (Lucian Msamati), try to go come to an agreement over proposed changes to the house. Campbell Moore’s Steve is a finely tuned rendition of a ‘new world’ American man: outwardly liberal, yet when cornered, doggedly insular and racist.
As a piece of new writing, this script is fast paced and acerbic. Norris’ dialogue flits between the characters with precision akin to the comic turns of Albee. If London is, as Matt Wolf would have us believe, having a rebirth into American theatre, then Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park is proudly at its forefront, leading the way.
My Fair Lady
It came as somewhat a surprise back at the beginning of the semester that Just So were breaking with recent tradition in their choosing of a musical classic for their spring show. Of late the university’s musicals society has stuck to the more modern ‘rock musical’ genre in an attempt to overcome what some could see as the old fashioned good nature of the classics, pieces from a world where issues such as teenage sex, homosexuality or domestic abuse were carefully dodged in favour of good, clean fun.
The last few years has seen the society gain notoriety for its daring choices such as Jerry Springer The Opera, which managed to spark protests by outraged Christians. The society however, went from strength to strength, and managed to remain affiliated to an ancient institution that is famous for its academics and its Christian foundations. Being the only university in the UK at the time to put on Jerry Springer The Opera it showed that St Andreans were still at the forefront of engaging in religious debates and couldn’t be scared away by some fanatics with placards.
So when the posters went up promoting My Fair Lady there were many questions about why the society had chosen to go in a different direction from that that was even present in their first semester show Spring Awakening. Of course the group description on Facebook attempted somewhat to bring My Fair Lady into the 21st century by captioning it ‘If Carlsberg made musicals…’ but even the group then later proclaims it as harking back to the classics. The air felt rife with the fear that Just So would merely forget the root of their success, i.e. daring to push the boundaries of convention, now that they can pretty much guarantee butts in seats regardless of whether people had heard of the musical or not because of the societies innovative reputation.
Of course, perhaps it was just time for the musicals society to actually do a musical that most people would recognise, even though they had become pretty adept at bringing lesser known shows to the glad attention of the mere musical plebeian of St Andrews. After all, My Fair Lady does have its fair share of social issues, and in the climate of St Andrews there are no bigger social issues than the class divide and the power of money. Could this choice actually be a clever way of bringing the best of both worlds to the stage by both putting on a well known and loved show but also commenting on issues that affect us in St Andrews today?
The show itself was wonderfully put together. It is no small feat to put on a play of its length and keep people sat in the slightly uncomfortable seating in Venue 1 entertained. The cast for the most part were spot on, with Catherine Slater managing to make the audience forget Audrey Hepburn ever played such a role, especially since she could actually sing unlike Hepburn, whose vocal performance in the film was actually sung by Marni Nixon. While Joseph Potts, who is always a pleasure to watch on stage, was an interesting Higgins, his performance sometimes verged on grating. Higgins is meant to be a tad annoying but Potts could have done with reining that in ever so slightly.
As for the aforementioned issues, it should have felt more prevalent but it just didn’t. With the rise of tuition fees poised to highlight the class divide in Britain and the recent constant representation of St Andrews as a haven for the Gap Yah stereotype amid the Royal Wedding coverage, this show could have really gone to town on the issue of money being an excuse for the rich to use the world, and the less fortunate people in it, as a plaything. More emphasis seemed to go on the musical numbers than on the fact that the issues of Victorian London can be seen today in our own little town.
That’s not to say the musical numbers were nothing short of show stopping. It takes a sturdier person than me to resist the temptation to join in with the ‘Get me to the church on time’ scene. I just hope that in the future Just So will use their ability to speak to the masses to the same effect as they did with Jerry Springer. The classics are undoubtedly good, but those can be seen in any big city around the world or on a DVD. Just So can be about so much more than praising the greats and pleasing musical numbers, it can musically kick its audience up the arse and I for one hope it returns to its true form soon.