Reviews West End & Central Published 1 April 2013

The Low Road

Royal Court, Jerwood Downstairs ⋄ 23rd March – 11th May 2013

A rough-and-ready fuck you to capitalism.

Stewart Pringle

There’s a rowdy, raucous, last-night party atmosphere to Dominic Cooke’s Royal Court swansong. ‘Sumptuous’ in the way that an all-you-can-eat buffet is sumptuous, it’s a rough-and-ready fuck you to capitalism that almost gets away with its lack of fresh ideas and coherence with sheer balls-out chutzpah. Almost, because although there’s something infectious about the fun that box office dream-team Cooke and Bruce Norris are having, you’ll be cured long before the indulgent three hour running time is up.

Narrated by great Scot Adam Smith (played with delightful sonority by Laphroaig-voiced Bill Paterson), Norris has thrown together a rambling picaresque satire of free-market economics, following the life of ambitious orphan Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn), as he strives to make his way from rags to riches in 18th century New England. Beginning with ‘no décor’ (a la If You Don’t Let Us Dream… and tens of thousands of plays that didn’t make a fuss about it) the stage soon becomes a conveyor belt of sets and scenarios, characters and calamities that rattle along like the fruits of an unseen collaboration between Trevor Nunn and Terry Gilliam.

Jim begins as a foundling, taken in by a kindly brothel madam, whose life is changed forever when he spies a scrap of paper drawn from Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Jim takes Smith’s pronouncements on the divine right of the individual to prosper for his own advancement as the ‘might means right’ justification for the blind pursuit of wealth. Believing himself to be the bastard child of George Washington, he departs to seek his fortune like a Randian Dick Whittington, puffed with entitlement and empty of morals. Along the way he finds himself shackled to John Blanke (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), a slave who briefly led the life of a gentlemen as ward to the Earl of Rivington.

It’s instantly refreshing to see a piece of such scope and rawness played out in the Jerwood Downstairs, and a delight to see Cooke close his tenure with a reminder that the Royal Court isn’t always reliant on the mode of the moment to tell stories about the world today. Cooke directs proceedings like Brechtian Blackadder, with cast members swapping roles with abandon, crossing the stage clutching painted intertitles and horse rides accompanied by the clopping of coconut halves. There’s plenty to love about Tom Pye’s design too, with its ramshackle pub signs swinging in from the wings and partitions sliding back and forth on clacking rails.

The problems emerge with Norris’s script, which dispenses with all subtlety and dramatic coherence in its quest for plain-speaking populism. Despite a strong turn from Flynn, Jim is neither believable as a character nor successful as a cipher. His vacillations between petulant whine and free market soap-boxing are tedious and uninvolving, and address only the most superficial realities of capitalist ideology. The dialogue only sputters to life when Norris peppers it with obscenities and anachronisms, but they’re cheap tricks, and wear thin quickly.

A handful of the tricks are rather better, including a left-field time-jump to a 21st century financial panel discussion, where the comedy is no less broad but the satire marginally more biting. Scenes are delightfully strung together by Paterson’s narration, as he picks his way through taverns and riots, his humour tinder-dry.

Against these flecks of light, a real concern emerges regarding the lack of compassion in Norris’s writing – a persistent tendency to lazily mock the disadvantaged. Where Clybourne Park was happy to play deafness for a cheap yuck, here we have a comedy blind-man, comedy weeping slaves with comedy slave-master, comedy starving prostitutes and – at the nadir of Norris’s ableism – a comedy disabled puritan locked into a comedy steel bridle. If Norris is making a point about the values of 18th century America, he has concealed it with a subtlety he denies the rest of his script. It seems more likely that he just doesn’t care, and it’s an unappealing trait that leaves a bitter aftertaste to the overlong knees-up he and Cooke have arranged.


Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

The Low Road Show Info

Directed by Dominic Cooke

Written by Bruce Norris

Cast includes Elizabeth Berrington, Johnny Flynn, Bill Paterson , Simon Paisley Day, Jared Ashe, Jack Benjamin, Kit Benjamin, Helen Cripps, Ian Gelder, Raj Ghatak, Natasha Gordon, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Ellie Kendrick, Edward Killingback, Fredrick Neilson, Harry Peacock, Leigh Quinn, John Ramm, Will Thompson




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