Clybourne Park focuses on a single house in an American neighbourhood, and how the inhabitants of that house shape and interact with the community. It consists of two mirroring acts – one set in the 1950s and one set in modern times – exploring issues of racism and community tensions that still have great resonance within the world today.
From the off the play seemed a bit slow to get into. It felt as if you’d been dumped into a house full of people that had known each other for years, meaning as an audience member I felt quite left out of most of the character’s conversations for at least the first half an hour. But after you begin to piece together all the various issues discussed it becomes quite engaging as you attempt to get to the bottom of all the tensions surrounding the inhabitants of Clybourne Park. In contrast, the second act seemed to move far quicker – perhaps down to the more modern time period, or perhaps down to the audiences familiarity with key events from Act One which allow parallels in the plot to shine through.
The show’s cast was, on the whole, quite impressive. The evening’s standout performance came from Gloria Onitiri, who gave a solid performance as Francine in the first act but really came into her own during the second as Lena, a passionate resident determined to uphold her family’s history. Rebecca Oldfield must also be credited with the sheer contrast between her two characters (that is, except the fact they were both pregnant) – in the first she convincingly plays the deaf Betsy, whereas in the second she plays a panicked soon-to-be-mum trying to befriend her new neighbours.
Jonathan Fensom’s design consists initially of a fairly plain 1950s style house. Faded and dingy looking yellow wallpaper collaborates with a range of cardboard boxes and rolled up carpets to really give a sense of a tired, unloved house ready for a family to move out of. As the curtain lifts on the second act, this same house retains its unloved aesthetic but this time is filled only with a slapdash selection of items being used as chairs as the residents carry out their meeting. The sounds of intrigue from other audience members as this was revealed was telling of the interesting contrast in the show which helped to retain attention during the second act.
Clybourne Park‘s real interest is in the way it challenges you not only to question the attitudes of the characters in the play, but of the attitudes also of those living in modern day Britain. It’s easy to watch the 1950s characters overt racism and think proudly to ourselves about how so much has changed since then, but the reality is that many of those issues still remain today. So often we hear comments like those from Nigel Farrage saying he would be ‘concerned’ if a group of Romanians moved in next door, and although luckily the majority of the population would disagree with his views, it is undeniable that issues of community cohesion and integration still do remain very strongly important today.
Clybourne Park challenges the idea that racism and discrimination are things of the past, and calls upon viewers to think about their own attitudes towards these issues.
Clybourne Park is playing at the Mercury Theatre until 23rd April, and then touring the UK until 28th May.