Surprises and disappointments: Clybourne Park at the Royal Court and Estate Walls at #54 Oval House Theatre

When it pays off to explore the Fringe

I’d been looking forward to seeing Clybourne Park for a while. I’d heard several glowing reviews and, after all, everyone loves the Royal Court, don’t they? On this occasion it seems that I was mislead by the hype; either I missed the point of the play, or everyone else has had their perception skewed by their shared crush on Martin Freeman.

Clybourne Park

Although the experience was by no means negative, it was disappointing. Certainly parts of the play are clever, but I didn’t see the really feel what Michael Coveney called the ‘uncomfortably revealing racist jokes’. They may not have been comfortable, but they didn’t seem particularly new; more like a thinking man’s take on ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’.

This, however, wasn’t my main qualm. Clybourne Park exposes the parallels evident between the lives of people living 50 years apart. Bruce Norris uses the device of a letter, buried and then discovered in a trunk in the garden, to really tie the two eras together. In the first half of the play, the letter is shown but not read. In the second half, the letter is shown again, but also not read. To me this was the missing link; what’s the point of the letter? Perhaps I expected the play to unravel along more predictable lines, but it seemed that the its denouement was never brought about; it was flashed in front of the audience’s face, but never allowed to create any impact. This was a frustrating irresolution. Sometimes it can be tantalising for things not to resolve, or to not lead to anything: I’m not going to complain when Chekhov’s characters don’t go anywhere, or when Wagner leaves a chord unresolved, but that doesn’t seem to be what Norris is about. Nothing is achieved by not explaining what extra information in the letter (a suicide note) is so terrible.

Underwhelmed by Clybourne Park, I was not in the best frame of mind to be able to give Estate Walls at Oval House a fair chance that same evening. As it turned out, I didn’t need to: it was impressive enough to win me over despite my being disgruntled.

Estate Walls

Set in an inner London estate and promising ‘slanguage’, I wasn’t hoping for the best went along to Estate Walls. Oval House Theatre has something of a community feel, but it also feels like a place that’s on the up: everything is very well organised, and the atmosphere is free-flowing. Inside the theatre, an almost hyper-real set of bricks, litter and flat windows is inhabited by a group of teenagers, all of whom have been hit hard by life at an early age. After a slightly clunky beginning, this play clicks into place absolutely perfectly: there’s poetry when you don’t expect it, and characters that at first seem unknowable gradually reveal their vulnerable sides. Written by Arinze Kene, Estate Walls is a timely reminder that when a play is well written, nothing is there without a reason, even if we initially struggle to see what that reason may be.

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