On the bus to the Royal Court I suddenly realised I hadn’t been there for at last 30 years. And I felt so bloody old.
I saw Tracy Ulman and a very young Alan Rickman in a thing called ‘The Grass Widow’ which I can only remember because Rickman was stark naked when the curtain went up.
Sensible review bit:
Olivier nominated Clybourne Park writer Dominic Cooke is back at the Royal Court downstairs with a work on similar themes: money and race…and bees.
Set in pre-Revolutionary American, The Low Road tells of a foundling brought up in a brothel who is led to believe his father is a certain G. Washington due to the note left with him when he was abandoned. This tends to get him in and out of scrapes, but his love of money is the root of all his evil and ‘the invisible hand’ of Adam Smith is his mantra.
Indeed, Smith himself, in the shape of a super-laconic Bill Patterson, is our narrator and guide here, popping up at odd moments, commenting idly on the action, giving us a nod and a wink. The plot doesn’t really need this sort of explanation, but it’s always a pleasing moment when Patterson pops into view, even when just mumbling that the props people have left his lecturn in the wrong place.
Jim Trumpett (played with a whiny sense of entitlement by Johnny Flynn) is a kind of Hogarthian rake who lollops through life accruing other peoples’ money and then blithely informing them that he’s only doing them a good turn really, even when he then loses it all.
On his travels he runs into a ‘deef’ (deaf) slave whom he promptly buys, only to find he’s neither deef, nor very good at thinking himself a slave. Very much an Olaudah Equiano figure who’s smarter than your average white bear, John Blanke (Kobna Holdbrook Smith) is a counterpoint to Jim’s grasping, money-orientated character. Blanke is a trapped soul who simply wants to be free: poor perhaps, but free.
When the two stumble upon a community of religious misfits, there is a spirited debate about the free market and whether there is such a thing as society. Jim is very much on his own here, but the debate lights up the stage with the characters all positioned behind a long table, bringing to mind The Last Supper.
This motif is continued in the second act only this time at a much richer table in a rather well off house where Jim works as the accountant, while John charms the family with his play on the theme of the emancipation of the black man.
Inbetween we have a diversion, but one that echoes the table debates of the first and second acts.
As the curtain rises for the second half, it’s a surprise to be in a modern setting: a conference centre filled with bankers and businessmen, there for a Q&A session which is quite witty in itself but descends into cliche towards the end. I won’t spoil it for you, but the treatment here is heavy handed, a feature of this play. Light touch, heavy touch. Only the light works.
Adam Smith then has a bit of an amble and a ramble and we’re back with Jim and John in the past.
The second half rolls along nicely, in a picaresque sort of way, exploring the same themes of altruism, economics and monetary sharp-practice. The only truly shocking part of the play that makes you sit back and take a breath is when Jim is ‘sold on’. It’s a nasty surprise and after all the chatting and arguing about ‘the invisible hand’ and whether it’s the only way to go, it brings economics down to a very human level with a crash.
And then we come to the very last scene. What to say? It’s frankly odd and stupid and makes no bloody sense at all.
Before the play started I was chatting to the guy sitting next to me and I remarked that the Royal Court looks like it has been riveted together and is quite Tardis-like.
At the fall of the curtain he turned to me and said ‘Your Tardis remark was somewhat prophetic!’
Quite what possessed the director to keep this piece of tosh in I can’t imagine. It’s clunky and says nothing that the rest of the piece hasn’t already covered. If nothing else, I suppose it does round up the theme of bees which runs loosely through the show. I had to look this up when I got home on Wiki, so it might be worth looking up The Parable of the Bees by Mandeville before you set out for the RC.
Overall, I didn’t feel as if I’d wasted three hours of my life watching this, as I had begun to fear towards the end of the first half. Flynn as Jim annoyed the hell out of me, so he did his job well, and the supporting cast of 20-odd ran around playing double that with great gusto but also with clarity.
In all, The Low Road doesn’t quite hit the mark as ultimately we don’t invest in the characters enough, and the ‘protest’ and ‘tardis’ scenes stick out like sore thumbs: sore thumbs with Royal Court sensibilities oozing out of them.
And well, frankly, I just couldn’t get Andy Hamilton’s ‘Revolting People’ out of my head throughout the whole thing….