Theatre review: The Low Road at the Royal Court Theatre

After seven fruitful years at Sloane Square’s Royal Court Theatre, Dominic Cooke is relinquishing his position as artistic director, though not before one final collaboration with American playwright Bruce Norris. The duo who brought us The Pain and the Itch and the critically acclaimed Clybourne Park team up again for The Low Road.

Set in 18th Century Massachusetts,The Low Road is a “fable of free-market economics and cut-throat capitalism”. Following the life of amoral Jim Trumpett, who may or may not be the son of George Washington, the play is powered by money, greed and racism. Trumpett, played by Johnny Flynn, desires nothing more than to be stinking rich and has no issue with eliminating all who get his way. Whether this is achieved by stealing from them, buying them or actually murdering them is of little concern to him.

Flynn plays the role with just the right amount of fake boyish charm and callousness. He is gracious to those who can help on his way, and vile once they have served their purpose. The brilliant portrayal of his character’s immorality is best bared in his scenes with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who plays Trumpett’s well-spoken slave John Blanke. Flynn perfectly captures Trumpett’s frustration as he repeatedly fails to control Blanke, in a series of highly amusing verbal battles.

Humour is a real strong point of the performance and holds it together when it verges on heavy-going. The plot is thick; there are location shifts, character shifts and time shifts -including one massive leap into a 21st Century board-room meeting. Indeed, if it weren’t for the Brechtian use of banners and signs telling you whereabouts in the story you were, and the brilliant dry-witted narrator, Adam Smith (played by Bill Paterson), then you would be at risk of literally losing the plot.

With a 20-strong cast playing, between them, 51 characters, The Low Road is a massive undertaking, which could only succeed under the experienced direction of Dominic Cooke. The play, which is reminiscent of Lucy Prebble’s Enron, is cleverly scripted, entertaining and thought-provoking. The realisation that the one character you explicitly don’t trust is probably the only character that is telling the truth is extremely unsettling. The Low Road is a long road, but it is worth the journey.

Verdict: ••••

Alice Audley


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