PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The Gate invites the official reviewers in tomorrow night.
Clybourne Park author Bruce Norris has a new play debuting at the Royal Court at the end of the month, but first one of his earlier plays gets its first UK showing courtesy of Christopher Haydon at the Gate. We're in a traverse again in Simon Kenny's design for Purple Heart, looking in on a typically beige 1970s living room, in some unnamed American suburb. A few months ago, Lars died in Vietnam. His alcoholic widow Carla (Amelia Lowdell) has been left to look after teenage son Thor (Oliver Coopersmith,) with the unwanted help of mother-in law Grace (Linda Broughton.) With Grace trying to thwart Carla's attempts to get hold of alcohol, their Saturday evening seems dramatic enough, but things take an odder turn at the arrival of what seems to be another person offering condolences: Purdy (Trevor White,) an old army buddy of Lars'.
Norris' exploration of the jagged edges of grief and post-traumatic stress is fantastically involving, and you can see the threads connecting it to his most famous play - like in Clybourne Park, the serious issues dealt with in Purple Heart (which at times explores much darker depths) come with a liberal helping of dark humour. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a subject matter this dark being dealt with in a funnier, more entertaining, yet still emotionally effective way.
Much of the humour comes from Coopersmith, whose facial expressions are priceless as the mischievous teenager with underlying trauma of his own, but who is largely used as comic relief to break the tension: There's a couple of very brief entrances and exits from him that achieve this brilliantly. But the rest of the cast also contribute many blackly comic moments. Indeed, another similarity with Clybourne Park is the play's interest in the use of jokes in completely the wrong moments.
Where Thor's occasional glimpses into quite a twisted side could be put down to his age, those offered by the other characters are even more disturbing. Lowdell is very strong in the lead as a woman whose body is going out of her control, in more ways than it initially appears. While White as Purdy does a nice job of very gradually revealing the disturbed side under the façade of the war hero - a parallel to the dead Lars, whose family's memories of him reveal more than the great man the neighbours all want to mourn.
I also can't not mention a spectacularly well-choreographed and executed stunt from Coopersmith and White, which we presumably have fight director Bret Yount to thank for. With this and a fiery moment later on, Haydon's production achieves a real sense of danger in the intimate space. A bleakly dark play that still manages more laugh-out-loud moments than many an attempt at comedy, Purple Heart is strongly recommended.
Purple Heart by Bruce Norris is booking until the 6th of April at the Gate Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.