The Royal Court Theatre presents
The Pain and the Itch ( Archived )
By Bruce Norris
14 June - 4 August 2007
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
A cosy family Thanksgiving dinner for six. Someone – or something – is leaving bite marks in the avocados. Clay and Kelly’s daughter Kayla has an itch and Carol can’t remember who played Gandhi.
In his first UK production, American writer Bruce Norris takes a withering look at phoney liberal values in this hilarious social satire.
The Pain and the Itch premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago before a sold-out run off-Broadway. Bruce Norris’ previous credits include The Infidel, Purple Heart and The Unmentionables. This UK premiere is directed by Dominic Cooke in his first production as Artistic Director of the Royal Court.
There will be 500 tickets for £5 available to 25s and under for The Pain And The Itch. Contact the Box Office for more details.
Social satire on phoney liberalism hits its target
by Michael Billington, The Guardian, 22 June 2007
Dominic Cooke is as good as his word. When he took over the Royal Court he promised us plays about the aspirational middle-classes. And, even if one wishes his first directorial choice had dealt with our native breed, Bruce Norris’s play offers a wittily ingenious satire on the American brand of phoney liberalism.
Norris’s play starts with a well-heeled couple, Clay and his wife Kelly, consoling an Asian guest on some undefined personal loss. But, although the mystery is ultimately revealed, Norris’s prime concern is with the unravelling of the hosts’ domestic camouflage during a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner. A sinisterly gnawed avocado is connected to the genital inflammation of Clay and Kelly’s daughter; and this exposes profound marital rifts, intense sibling rivalry and the condescension shown by Clay’s plastic-surgeon brother to his East European girlfriend.
Norris’s target is a broad one but he hits it plumb centre: these are the affluent middle-classes who fail to practise what they preach. Clay is a guilt-ridden househusband who, looking round his opulent living room, protests: “You call this rich?” Kelly is so politically correct that, on seeing her daughter being given a cosmetic makeover by the visiting bimbo, she screams: “Let’s not indoctrinate her into masculine objectification just yet.” Even Clay’s mother, while voting for the Socialist Workers’ party, treats the Asian visitor as if he were some strange specimen from one of the TV documentaries she ardently watches.
As social satire, in the style of Jules Feiffer, the play is very funny. It over-reaches itself only when it turns into a comedic version of Ibsen’s Ghosts and suggests that the child’s skin complaint is a symbol of an inherited moral infection afflicting middle America.
But Cooke’s production has the right poisoned elegance, aided by a two-tier set by Robert Innes Hopkins that uncannily echoes that for The Lady From Dubuque. And the acting is a constant pleasure. Matthew Macfadyen’s Clay is like a petulant child trapped inside an adult body, resorting to playground foot-stamping as he reveals his brother’s supposed Republican sympathies. Sara Stewart’s Kelly, while ostentatiously nursing an infant at her breast, exudes the steeliness of the corporate high-earner.
Peter Sullivan has a laconic style reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman, as Clay’s laid-back brother. Even funnier is Andrea Riseborough as his East European lover who spits blood at the mention of socialism and who fits snugly into her designer jeans. And Amanda Boxer lends the mother a neat mixture of schoolteacher earnestness and fascination with the popular culture she apparently despises. A special mention also for Shannon Kelly who, sharing the role of the afflicted child, plays her with great dignity.
Starting its life at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, this is a play that earns its keep on the Royal Court’s main stage and dents the theatre’s faintly puritan image. But, given that the English Stage Company began its life with a play by Angus Wilson, The Mulberry Tree, that attacked bien-pensant British liberals, I just hope Cooke can come up soon with some big plays that examine our own native hypocrisies.
Rich pickings beneath the surface
by Charles Spencer, The Telegraph, 22 June 2007
When Dominic Cooke took over as artistic director of the Royal Court this year, he promised to reflect the theatre’s predominatntly middle-class audience back to itself. For a venue best known for gritty, in-your-face, kitchen-sink drama, this was a revolutionary manifesto.
And in the first play he has chosen to direct himself, Cooke has hit upon a brilliantly satirical piece that gleefully skewers the values of the impeccably liberal rich. There is, however, some comfort for those who fret about world poverty and global warming while buying designer clothes in Sloane Street and flying to Barbados for their holidays. The play is American, which will give English viewers a chance to say: “Well, of course, we are nothing like as bad as that.”
I suspect even rich, Democrat American theatre-goers let themselves off the hook a little when the play was premiered in Chicago in 2004, for at times Bruce Norris’s satire is just a little too broad and judgmental for the play’s own good. But the writing is so entertaining and the structuring of the play, which has something of the old-fashioned whodunnit about it, so skilful that I’m prepared to forgive the occasional heavy-handedness.
Clay and Kelly live in a luxurious home with their cute young daughter and their new baby son. Kelly has a well-paid office job, so Clay has become a doting house-husband, and this apparently enviable couple has invited the rest of the family for Thanksgiving.
Everything goes gloriously wrong. It’s clear Clay can’t abide his cynical plastic surgeon of a brother, Cash, and the golden couple also look down on Cash’s glamour puss of an East European girlfriend who has alarmingly non-PC views on everything from gipsies (kill them) to smoking (best done in front of the kiddies). The horror they evince when Kalina starts playing war games with their little girl is a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.
But matters go from bad to worse. Some unidentified creature is leaving bite marks in the avocado pears and, when Clay’s mother discovers that her grand-daughter has a vaginal infection, child abuse is suspected. And just who is the patient, grieving Muslim visitor Mr. Hadid (Abdi Gouhad), who interrupts the Thanksgiving scenes with courteous questions about the family’s wealth?
I don’t want to give too much away, but at its best the play comes over like an ingenious mixture of Abigail’s Party and An Inspector Calls, as the wince-making comedy of social embarrassment gives way to more serious questions of moral responsibility.
Cooke directs a superbly acted production with the confidence of a man who knows he is on to a winner, while Robert Innes Hopkins’s elegant design reeks of money and minimalist good taste.
Sara Stewart brilliantly captures the cold steel that underlies the caring, socially-concerned facade of Kelly, frequently putting me in mind of the terrifying Tina Brown, while Matthew Macfadyen hilariously and poignantly suggests the bitter sense of emasculation of her husband. Andrea Riseborough offers a delicious comic turn as the boozy east European who actually knows the cruelty of the world at first hand, and there is strong support from Peter Sullivan and Amanda Boxer.
This is a terrifically entertaining, sometimes disturbing play that asks uncomfortable questions about the way the West lives now.
Superbly staged savage satire of liberal hypocrisy
by Paul Taylor, 22 June 2007, The Independent
When he took over the Royal Court in January, Dominic Cooke announced the theatre was going to make a break with some of its traditions. In his regime, it would be out with the kitchen sink and in with the dishwasher, so to speak.
Goodbye to the underclass as subject matter and hello to the bourgeois intelligentsia who form a large part of the Court’s regular audience. Instead of plays that let us gawp like cultural tourists at the poor and the marginalised, there would be work that forced us to take an uncomfortable look at ourselves.
He certainly honours that in his brilliant inaugural production of an American play, The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris. This is a savage satire of the hypocrisy of affluent liberals. At its centre, there is a family Thanksgiving dinner whose hosts are Clay, an insecure, aggrieved house-husband (the superbly funny Matthew Macfadyen) and his spouse Kelly (Sara Stewart), a high-powered, bitter corporate exec.
It’s a moot point whom this couple loathe more: George Bush or one another. They are the kind of people who go into contortions of righteous social concern not because they enuinely care but because they want to feel good about their supposed beliefs.
Their guests are Clay’s mother (Amanda Boxer), a rambling biddy with short-term memory loss who thinks that because she watches PBS travel documentaries her sympathies are multicultural, and his cynical plastic surgeon brother (Peter Sullivan) who has brought along his girlfriend, Kalina (Andrea Riseborough). This young East European refugee was raped as a child; she can’t get enough of American materialism; she is politically incorrect, to an outrageous extent, about gypsies, blacks and Jews; and she wants to put sexy supermodel make-up on the little over-protected daughter of Clay and Kelly. And as if she weren’t bad enough, some alien creature seems to have been taking bites out of the avocadoes and the child has developed an ominous genital infection.
All of this is conveyed in flashbacks to Mr Hadid (Abdi Gouhad), a Muslim immigrant whose tragic connection with the family is gradually disclosed. I thought at first the play was going to be no more than a superior, politically angled sitcom but, through clever, intricate plotting, it builds into a devastating indictment of lip-service liberalism.
If only Clay and Kelly had ventured forth from the insulation of their rhetoric, they might have noticed things about their maids and their offspring that would have averted this shameful outcome. I don’t see how Cooke could have directed this play any better. Highly recommended.
Stylish satire on liberal guilt that shows no mercy
by Kieron Quirke, Evening Standard, 22 June 2007
When Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke took over at Sloane Square in January, he promised plays that mocked the pretensions of our progressive ruling class. Directing this abrasive, relentless and really very funny satire from American playwright Bruce Norris, he delivers on that promise in style.
In an expensive warehouse apartment in a US city, where an iPod serves as a stereo and books by Michael Moore sit upon the shelves, high-flier Kelly and househusband Clay are telling the story of their disastrous family Thanksgiving. It’s an outrageous, far-fetched story, featuring a nibbled avocado, a dead Indian woman and a genital rash. But the plot isn’t so important as the character work that goes on around it.
Kelly and Clay are modern-day monsters. Made guilty by their wealth, they get through by justifying their selfish desires with politically correct, touchy-feely waffle, then acting just as they please. They love the oppressed, unless they vote Republican. They preach against aggression and privilege, while using every resource they have to get their child ahead. Intent on being victims, they forge tales of abused childhoods rather than accept their comfortable existence.
There to prick their bubble are Clay’s ruthlessly realistic brother Cash, and his European girlfriend Kalina, an immigrant unafraid to sing the praises of the American way – Starbucks do, indeed, make decent coffee. Andrea Riseborough is hilarious in the role, making every comic mispronunciation count. The smug and joyless Clay is also a great part for Matthew Macfadyen – a comic counterpart of all those over-serious alpha males he plays on screen – and the actor has him down pat, pulling off the trick of showing us Clay’s insecurity without making him likeable.
Norris has us laugh and sneer at his characters with the relentless misanthropy of the pure satirist. His is a gloriously cynical world view, with no good guys. Cash does not advocate one principle and practise something else – he doesn’t have principles. Kalina is unfailingly honest, but in being so advocates genocide of gipsies and Jews. Indignity after indignity is piled upon Clay, and there is no progression or redemption for his despised heroes. The frantic action does get less exciting as the play goes on, and at times you can’t remember a point where Macfadyen wasn’t shouting. No matter – the jokes remain plentiful, plus it’s invigorating to see liberal guilt – which theatre so often panders to – subjected instead to merciless dissection.
The Pain and The Itch
14 June – 04 August
Tickets 25, 15, 10 Mondays all seats 10.
Mon – Sat 7.30pm
Thu 21 June, 7pm
Sign-Interpreted Performance(s) Thu 12 July
Thu 19 July
Thu 28 June
3.30pm (from 23 June)
2 hours 20 minutes including one interval