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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Low Road
Royal Court Theatre  Spring  2013

Bruce Norris's new play is an attempt at a picaresque epic, a Tom Jones-style romp with capitalism taking the place of sexual indiscretions. He doesn't quite pull it off, and it eventually collapses under the weight of its own ambition, but there's a lot of fun to be had along the way. 

Norris's antihero is a foundling in pre-Revolutionary America, raised in a brothel and filled with the fiery religion of raw capitalism – risking money, preferably someone else's, to make more money.

His episodic adventures bring him in improbable contact with Hessian mercenaries, a black slave, a Quaker-like religious cult, a French West Indian planter, a corruptible British captain, an amiable New York merchant and more than one appointment with the hangman or firing squad. 

Along the way he gets to preach his gospel of unhampered free market capitalism and to practice what he preaches, leaving a trail of bankrupts behind him. 

While the play is bemusedly admiring this rogue at work it is lively and entertaining, even when things repeatedly stop to allow the long-winded lad to lecture anyone who'll listen on the virtues of trusting the market and giving him their money to invest. But any comic romp would be difficult to sustain for the three hours the play runs, and Norris has to pause from time to time to let the play catch its breath. 

His biggest digression comes right in the middle, as we abruptly jump to the present and a typical international conference on the world economy. 

The satiric purpose of the episode is to show modern bankers, finance ministers, academics and businessmen unashamedly voicing the same platitudes as their eighteenth-century predecessor, even in the face of recent experience. But the long sequence just plays like an intrusion from some other play, or perhaps a remnant of an abandoned earlier version of this one. 

Though we get back to the eighteenth-century story eventually, the steam seems to have gone out of it, and the last hour of the play has little of the comic energy of the first act. Even the author seems to have lost interest by the end, wrapping up as many of a load of loose ends as he can by very abruptly killing a lot of characters off. 

One of Norris's small jokes is to have the story introduced and narrated by father-of-capitalism Adam Smith, and Bill Paterson fills the role with his accustomed easy charm. 

Johnny Flynn invests the central figure with the roguish sexiness an antihero requires, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith makes an improbably cultured slave believable, and the rest of the cast double and triple roles, Elizabeth Berrington and Simon Paisley Day standing out. 

And at least for the first act, a ninety minutes that romps by in a flash, director Dominic Cooke hits all the right comic notes, defeated in the end only by the play's lingering on too long after its vitality has waned. I'm almost tempted to recommend that you leave at the interval.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Low Road - Royal Court Theatre 2013  

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