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Living through change

Posted: 4th May 2016

Theatre review by Henry Ascoli

Clybourne Park, Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre


Racial tension and social changes are at the heart of this razor-sharp satire, which proves both provocative and absorbing viewing.

This brave and beautifully-crafted play by Bruce Norris scratches beneath the surface to bring historic issues to the fore, lifting the lid on race and real estate in a fictional Chicago neighbourhood.

A play of two halves, during the first act we are immersed in the drama surrounding Russ and Bev who, struck by personal tragedy, opt to uproot. But the new occupants of the property attract consternation from across the suburban white community, simply because of the colour of their skin.

Yet when we return to the same property some five decades on, the tables are turned somewhat, and the stark contrast in social attitudes, views and values is once again at the heart of the debate.

Of course, much of the satire surrounds the very subject at the centre of the piece: race; yet it is by focusing on this elephant in the room that the play justifies its very existence. While many of the jokes – particularly during the second act – receive a mixed reception from the audience, they also alert us to the vast cultural changes which have taken place during the last half century.

The skill and passion of the cast are pivotal to the success of this bold production, as each actor plays dual roles, seamlessly switching characters during the interval to adopt a very different persona and perspective.

Mark Womack paints a striking portrait of a broken man as Russ, struggling to contain his frustration as those around him flounder in their social prejudice. During the second act, he proves no less entertaining as boisterous builder Dan.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Manley switches from heartbroken Bev in the first half to carefree lawyer Kathy in the second, with both characters’ blissfully naïve to the tension surrounding them.

Wole Sawyerr’s strong stage presence and perfect comedy timing prove key in his dual roles as Francine’s gently polite husband Albert and the more laidback, quietly confident Kevin.

Yet undoubtedly the stand-out performance comes from Ben Deery, whose dual roles epitomise the provocative messages of the production. During the first act, we meet Karl, who uses his community association duties as the tool to communicate his retrograde racial views. Later, with the introduction of Steve, we discover a stubborn man whose attitude and values are shaped only by his blinkered view of the world around him – eventually standing alone in his complete inability to address the issue head-on.

The superbly-crafted stage takes us from late ‘50’s suburbia to modern day building site, the house acting as the only constant in an ever-changing society.

While certainly not universally popular, this is a production of great value in every sense: superb entertainment with sentiment attached.

Clybourne Park runs on the main stage until Saturday 7th May. To book tickets and find out more, call 01483 440000 or visit www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk