Bruce Norris' new play at the Royal Court is rambling, indulgent, outlandish, ridiculous and doesn't say anything new but equally under Dominic Cook's direction it is riotous, funny and an entertaining romp.
At three hours, including an interval, Norris takes a long time to tell the life story of 27-year old Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn). It starts shortly after his birth in 1759 New England when he is left on the doorstep of a bar and brothel. Jim quickly demonstrates an apptitude for numbers having read the letters of an English soldier billeted at the whore house develops a philosophy on life that leads him down a path of money making enterprises that mirrors those of modern bankers.
Indeed, if Jim is a metaphor for those bankers (it is never explained how he goes from being a canny brothel book keep to a bond and derivatives trader) then Norris' image is scathing one. Jim is oblivious to the impact his failing financial schemes have on those he has duped into investing and is impervious to criticism. The free market is king and anyone who doesn't help himself or can't help themselve is little more than pointless in his eyes.
By setting the story, in the main, in 18th Century New England it is visually easier to emphasise the rich/poor divide and the issue of slavery becomes a metaphor for capitalism's dehumanising effect; people as a commodity.
The problem with all this is that like many of the plays on this subject Norris is nailing his colours firmly to the mast and in this case nailing them over and over again with nothing new or particularly interesting to say.
There is an extraneous scene just after the interval where we are briefly transported to a modern day conference on economic issues and where there is only one person on the panel challenging how beneficial the current financial system actually is. Well, one if you don't count the demonstrators. This scene, combined with a brief flirtation with the future via a sci-fi encounter, are just over egging the pudding and could easily be cut.
Putting financial crisis commentary to one side, where the Low Road succeed is in it's riotous tale of trials and tribulations and that it is well done good fun. Norris' characteristically witty script doesn't quite have the same bite that Clybourne Park had but it is laugh out loud funny and a more comfortable laughter as a result.
There are some nice staging devices - Bill Paterson's humourous narrator regularly breaks the fourth wall and jumps in location and time are paraded across the stage on boards, boxing-ring style. The huge cast of 20 all take on multiple roles so that part of the entertainment becomes spotting them behind their transformations. Simon Paisley Day gets my award for chameleon acting skills. (I'd love to know where they put all the cast, I've seen how big the two dressing rooms aren't at the Royal Court.)
Johnny Flynn as the anti-hero Jim gives the best performance I've seen from him which is a good thing as the play does hang on that character. And, the 'birth mark scene', as I am calling it, will be forever etched in my memory - go for the higher seat numbers in the stalls and you'll know what I mean.
In the Low Road it feels a little like Norris has indulged and been indulged but fortunately there is enough good and enjoyable in it that a lot can be forgiven. Definitely worth a £10 Monday seat (5.5p per minute including the interval).
It runs at the Royal Court Downstairs until 11 May.
Aside from the fab Bill Paterson who was in Criminal Justice and a couple of others in the cast who were in His Dark Materials my favourite direct connection is an audience member, one Adam James who was in The Pride with Mr W at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York. His was sat in the row behind Poly and I, just behind Leo Bill, Sinead Matthews and Max Bennett, the latter seemed to be particularly enjoying The Low Road.