Royal Court Downstairs until July 21. Director: Dominic Cooke. Cast includes Matthew Mcfadyen, Sara Stewart, Peter Sullivan, Andrea Riseborough
I don’t know what it is with American plays and films about dysfunctional families, but they always seem to play at Thanksgiving. The ultimate festival of family reunion seems to be the perfect backdrop for a family falling apart. This is the case with Bruce Norris’ play the pain and the itch that first premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2004 and is now shown in the Royal Court. A liberal couple with two small children invites the husband’s socialist mother and his plastic surgeon-cum-republican brother with his Russian girlfriend for Thanksgiving dinner. Soon things are starting to go wrong, or rather they have been wrong all along, with strange teeth marks on avocados and the itchy pants of the little daughter Kayla. The pain and the itch is a deeply symbolical play about the repressions of the so called liberal and progressive middle-class American who is revealed to be as angst-ridden, money driven and hypocritical as his Republican counterpart. Despite its sometimes annoyingly didactic impetus, this is a beautifully constructed play that slowly reveals the story it has to tell.
However the Royal Court production (Dominic Cooke’s premiere as its Artistic Director), although dramatic, entertaining, well acted and at times moving, does not seem to be able to fulfill the full potential of Bruce Norris writing. In my view, this has to do with the way satire and realism are balanced in the play. Cooke puts the emphasis right from the beginning on satire, to the point that the couple played by Matthew Mcfadyen and Sara Stewart appear as caricatures of a liberal couple – he as a wimp, she as a career woman. Later on in the play, Stewart is able to break out of the stereotype but Mcfadyen plays Clay ( I said this was a highly symbolic play) as too much of a buffoon that we could care from him. The point about the play is that these people are meant to be on the fine line between realistic characters and caricatures, likeable and politically aware and at the same time angst-ridden and hypocritical – in short: that they are us. But what we actually see on stage is a couple you wouldn’t want to invite for thanksgiving yourself. So the whole idea of satire as a mirror to the audience is lost as we can’t identify with them. Thankfully, the other roles are played with much more understatement. Clay’s Republican brother Cash (Cash and Clay, gedditt?) is played with wonderful sarcasm by Peter Sullivan, an Art Garfunkel lookalike. Andrea Riseborough gives a moving and funny performance as the Russian girl Kalina in a role that could have turned into pure cliche and Amanda Boxer is tone perfect as the forgetful and chatty grandmother Carol. Abdi Gouhad gives a dignified but slightly cliched Mr Hadid, whose questions both inspire and disrupt the narrative of the thanksgiving dinner.