The Pain and the Itch at the Royal Court, the latest play by the blunt American writer Bruce Norris certainly did whip up some brouhaha in the USA (it debuted in Chicago and successfully played off-Broadway), particularly in its treatment of a child actor featuring in the play, whose character is essentially (but only eventually) the moral meaning of the piece. Some people have complained that an innocent youngster should not be part of such an ‘adult’ evening, which contains swearing and sexual references. Actually the little girl hears or sees nothing worse than a normal child might in day to day life, but it is ironic that a play mocking the middle class overprotection of children and the hypocrisy of liberal America should cause such a silly row.
I found the play very funny and consistently engaging, with the added bonus of excellent acting from the cast of 7 (including the non-speaking, but often screaming child); Norris has a great brittle turn of phrase and a fantastic insight into the wealthy middle class American mind. The production perfectly launches new artistic director Dominic Cooke’s more self searching regime (he’s saying goodbye to the drug addict/prostitute/council estate/gang violence/underclass monopoly in order to hold a mirror to the average Royal Court audience once in a while. Though I strongly feel that the self interested privileged classes must be confronted with a bit of grime and underclass once in a while, showing them some home truths once in a while is a welcome development).
The play is actually not particularly radical, showing a predictably disparate family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner in the well appointed environs of Clay (Matthew Macfadyen) and Kelly’s home. They have two children, the screaming girl that I have mentioned before and a baby, both of whom Clay looks after whilst Kelly pursues her lucrative career. Clay’s socialist mother Carol (for socialist read slightly paternalistic well meaning dreamer, played by Amanda Boxer), his formerly estranged plastic surgeon brother Cash (Peter Sullivan), and his Eastern European girlfriend (for Eastern European read vapid bimbo) complete the guest list. There is also an Asian/Muslim man present throughout (for Muslim read foreign and rather nice, played by Abdi Gouhad), to whom the story of the play is seemingly acted out for, he himself having little to do with action until the end (you’ll find out why at then, but that really is beside the main point, which you should have already ‘got’ by now).
Norris brings us some brilliant observations on middle class life, particularly the supposed liberals who hate their fellow poorer countrymen (just think about the treatment of our very own underclass and particularly ‘chavs’, who many people seem to think are worse than scum and should be gotten rid of somehow), yet weep buckets for those unfortunates abroad (as long as they don’t have to actually do anything, god forbid). He shows us people who casually devalue other human beings, in this case their unseen maid; they revel in their conspicuously stylish and comfortable living (but think they don’t); they treat their daughter like a precious little ornament in a glass menagerie, shielded from reality, but inculcated into their quest for status. I also enjoyed his dissection of suffering, through the far from sympathetic and almost comically right wing Kalina (the Eurotrash girlfriend, wonderfully played by Andrea Risborough), highlighting her casual acceptance of real suffering in the face of Kelly’s self obsessed complaining at perceived abuse (basically amounting to sarcasm). Of course Kalina, a stick thin young woman, seemingly not very intellectually challenging, sexily made up, is just what a rich older and wealthy male like Cash should aspire too, but also what his brother and sister in law despise; non conformity to their liberal and supposedly emancipated values (not the freedom of choice that those views supposedly entail, the tyranny of illiberal liberals you could say). But enough examples, The Pain and the Itch is an interesting, funny and well acted play, and shows great promise for the Royal Court’s immediate future (some main stage home-grown new plays soon please).