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Review: Clybourne Park at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

ClybourneWole Sawyerr and Gloria Onitiri CREDIT Robert Day

Race, religion and property prices. Aren’t those the three to avoid in dinner party chat? There are probably others, too, but those are the humdingers. So what better themes to stage a play around. Add the suicide of a returned soldier, and you’ve got a story that’s bound to explode. Welcome to Clybourne Park.

But it all starts out a little more sedately. It’s 1959, in a cosy Chicago neighbourhood. Russ (Mark Womack) is listening to the wireless and eating Neapolitan ice-cream straight from the tub. His wife Bev (Rebecca Manley) busies herself packing boxes for their move, with assistance from the black domestic help, Francine (Gloria Onitiri). There’s a mildly amusing exchange from the couple about where the word Neapolitan comes from.

It moves up a notch when the witless vicar Jim (William Troughton) pops in to talk to Russ about his lingering grief over the suicide of his Korean veteran son. There’s a bit of sweariness, as he’s told where to go. Then a ghastly neighbour and Rotarian Karl (Ben Deery) comes around to tell them he’s unhappy they’ve sold the house to a black family, concerned it will send property prices downhill as well as the integrity of the neighbourhood.

And here the discussions descend into increasingly troubled waters – most of them insensitively in front of Francine and her husband Albert (Wole Sawyerr). It’s funny in parts, not side-splittingly so, but more subtle. It makes you squirm a little.

ClybourneBen Deery and Mark Womack CREDIT Robert Day

We fast forward 50 years for Act 2, to 2009. And the tables are turned. The same set of actors, but different characters, are back in the Clybourne Park house. But now it’s an all-black neighbourhood and young white couple Lindsey (Rebecca Oldfield) and Steve (Deery) are moving in and want to build a new house in place of the old one.

ClybourneWole Sawyerr, Gloria Onitiri and William Troughton CREDIT Robert Day

There’s a meeting in the now-derelict house between the lawyers, the new owners and the residents – with the latter concerned the area will lose its cultural significance and integrity. Sound familiar? Racial tensions and prejudice lurk not far from the surface. The sweariness is taken to the top level, and crass and outrageously bigoted jokes are traded. It’s disbelievingly funny.

There are clever references between the two eras. Oldfield is pregnant in both. Ontiri’s sharp-tongued Lena is a relative of the earlier black house buyers. Lawyer Kathy, too, is referenced to the earlier generation. It is this cleverness, and the strong performances of the entire cast, that allows this production to negotiate a potentially tricky topic with such panache.

Clybourne Park is on until Sat 7 May. Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Millbrook, Guildford, GU1 3UX. Tel: 01483 44 00 00. £21-£32.50.

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