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Posts Tagged ‘The Pain and the Itch’

Whenever I walk into a theatre to be greeted by a retro set, I have to stop myself saying ‘we had one of those’ and try to concentrate on the play. Simon Kenny’s terrific early 70’s design is amongst the most nostalgic I’ve come across, even though it’s mid-West USA not west country UK. All brown and orange, triple ceiling lights and a stereogram – and lime green wallpaper! Fortunately, there was enough time to clock each item before the play started.

Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park was my Best New Play of 2010, a step change on his earlier The Pain & the Itch, also good and also at the Royal Court. Purple Heart was written eight years earlier and this is its UK premiere at the Gate Theatre, configured in the currently fashionable traverse setting ( is that to facilitate spectating the other half of the audience if the play lags?).

War widow Carla (Vietnam war) and her 12-year old son Thor live with well-meaning but smothering, irritating mother-in-law Grace. Carla has a drink problem and may still be grieving. Thor is precocious (in truth, he seems much more mature than a 12-year old has any right to be), loves practical jokes and shocking grandma.

An army corporal comes to visit, the latest in a long line of sympathisers (most, but not him, bearing a casserole as is customary in small town America) though he doesn’t appear to be a former colleague of deceased Lars. We learn that he met (and became obsessed with) Carla in a hospital where she was being treated for depression.

This is an extraordinarily realistic depiction of the trauma of grief and the personal impact of war on the relationships and lives of those affected. At the same time, it’s a bit of a mystery and played out (particularly in the second half) with great suspense. The silences are themselves extremely tense (and much more effective than Pinter) and there is an unpredictability and danger about it all.

The performances are all superb. Oliver Coopersmith, playing way lower than his true age, is naive and funny but hurtful in the way only children can be. Linda Broughton makes Grace seem like someone you know well, someone who irritates and charms you in equal measure; you can’t help loving her, but you wouldn’t want to live with her. Amelia Lowdell’s Carla is angry & sad, imprisoned by her loss and her mother-in-law. Trevor White is the somewhat mysterious visitor, part benevolent, part creepy; he’d win a Riding the Silence Award in any year.

Christopher Haydon’s staging is impeccable and the effect at close proximity in this small space is intense and voyeuristic. Great to see more Norris, and in such a finely staged and performed production too. More early Bruce Norris please!

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