'The Low Road' review or 'The school swot is running riot!'

'The Low Road', Bruce Norris
Royal Court Theatre, 27th March 2013

It's the end of Dominic Cooke's term at The Royal Court and he's letting one of his star pupils, Bruce Norris, run riot. The end of school show is 'The Low Road' and it vaguely resembles a nativity play, with its makeshift set, shoddy wigs and bemused cast. As with any good school play, there's a thumpingly obvious take-home message: 'Capitalism is bad, kids'.

The strangest thing about Norris' latest play is the context, which feels unhelpful verging on pointless. The play unfolds in the 18th Century but it could've just as easily been set in the modern-day. All this context achieves is a 'universal whiff' to the play and a chance to be cheeky and write lazy dialogue. It strikes me as such a peculiar choice for a writer who is so brilliant at writing glinting, dangerous modern-day speech. In picking this context, Norris has nullified his talents rather than liberated them.

We watch as a long time ago in a land far away (New England), a baby is left outside a whorehouse. This baby grows up to be a young lad – Jim Trumpett – who works hard and ruthlessly and eventually becomes a successful accountant/financial speculator. Alas, in his selfish devotion to a free market without regulations, young Jim eventually plunges a rich household into bankruptcy. In fact, Jim manages to eradicate over 70% of this affluent household's total worth. Sound familiar?

It's such a tiring experience watching this piece. Because of the 18th Century setting, one is constantly tempted to 'translate' the action on stage. This piece must, in a clever and oblique way, be trying to say something about now – right? But in reality there is absolutely no divide between now and then. The characters on-stage might as well be wearing contemporary costumes. One spends the whole production trying to 'decode' a piece that requires no such effort. It's a thankless task.

Whilst the audience exhausts itself trying to look for hidden meaning that just isn't there, the actors hammer through an unforgiving script. Bill Paterson, as the narrator, has an unbelievable amount of meandering speeches to wade through. It's hard to trust a play with this much narration; it points to a writer who has lost faith in his play's ability to speak for itself.

We occasionally flash forward into the future but these scenes only highlight how good Norris is at writing contemporary speech and just how derivative his 18th century chat sounds in comparison. Rather than deepening the play, the 18th Century context simply allows Norris to make lots of poo jokes and write sub-standard dialogue. Next time round, less playing and more play, please.


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