Monday, 15 April 2013

Theatre review: The Low Road

Bruce Norris provided Dominic Cooke with his first show as artistic director of the Royal Court, as well as the play that perhaps best summed up his tenure for me, Clybourne Park. So it's to Norris that Cooke turns again for his farewell production, and an epic, comic and sometimes downright bizarre parable in The Low Road. With the American War of Independence looming, a baby is left on the doorstep of a brothel, with a note promising whoever raises him will be rewarded when he turns 17. There will be money coming Jim Trumpett's way by the end of his teens, but it'll be of his own making, as the budding capitalist "reorganises" the brothel's finances, cheerfully ripping off the prostitutes who helped raise him in the process. Setting off on a ruthless moneymaking odyssey, Jim's first financial transaction is to buy a slave, and his subsequent business dealings don't get any nicer.

Narrated by the famous economist and £20 note model Adam Smith (Bill Paterson,) The Low Road is a hard piece to pin down, touched by moments of genius but also encumbered with many flaws, and frankly incomprehensible decisions. Norris' usual black humour infuses the piece and the fable he tells is often very successful but does have a tendency towards the heavy-handed.

At the centre of this is one of the most repellent protagonists I've seen on stage for a long time, Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) is the distillation of heartless right-wing economics, a foul-mouthed, violent paper-pusher who incessantly preaches in a monotonous drone about the virtue of the market taking care of itself, while his decisions invariably leave anyone who trusts him out of pocket, and left to fend for themselves. His opposite, and unwilling constant companion is the well-spoken slave John Blanke (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith,) no angel but possessed of a realism and compassion, and a personality that helps him rise in society through his own merits - but an owner always ready to remind him that the market which made him a piece of property controls him in the end. A flash-forward sees Trumpett's heirs inheriting the earth, as one of his descendants (Simon Paisley Day) joins a smug panel of billionaires defending their actions.

The huge cast includes memorable turns from Ellie Kendrick as a religious fundamentalist with a side-line in highway robbery, Ian Gelder as her blind father and leader of their doomed sect, Elizabeth Berrington as Jim's foster mother and Natasha Gordon as her one-eyed Jamaican slave who spots his wicked side even as a baby, Harry Peacock as a French fop, Edward Killingback (Yeah!) Them Motherfuckers Don't Know How To Act (Yeah!) as an English one, Raj Ghatak as a modern billionaire whose blunt boasts of his wealth scupper the other panelists' pretense at being reasonable, John Ramm as a wealthy man who misplaces his trust in Jim and Leigh Quinn as his socialite daughter.

And then there's the epilogue, which I can only possibly justify as a joke by Norris that Cooke was meant to look at, go "oh you, LOL," and cross out in his script, but instead he went ahead and spent a lot of money staging it before the author had the time to tell him he didn't mean it. It's possibly the most misjudged ending involving bees since this one.1

A strange ending note for Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court, then; it's certainly unusual, and although too long it's not actually boring. But it's neither the writer's nor the director's best work.

The Low Road by Bruce Norris is booking until the 11th of May at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

1and if you couldn't guess what clip I linked to there without clicking on it: welcome to the internet, I hope you enjoy your time here.

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