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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Low Road

"His body was placed in a communal grave and covered in quicklime and earth, in a location, which in years to come, would be paved over with a layer of asphalt as parking space for a Taco Bell, a Pizza Hut, and a Lady Footlocker." — Adam Smith
The Low Road Cast at Puritan meal with Johnny Flynn Centre as Jim Trumpett (Photo: Johan Persson)
Dominic Cooke's regime comes to a close at the Royal Court with an epic, sprawling "fable of free market economics and cut-throat capitalism" written by Bruce Norris. Set mostly in 18th century America, we follow the adventures of Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) from his abandonment in 1759 as a baby at a brothel, with note claiming that his parentage is one G. Washington. The history is a jolly romp with a nod to Fielding's Tom Jones, except that the goal is not the conquest of women or the ascent of virtue but the gaining of wealth.

Simon Paisley Day is a conniving British Redcoat, Captain Shirley, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, an honest slave, Mister John Blanke, and Bill Paterson plays the narrator, Scottish economist and author of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith. Given responsibility for the books at the brothel, Jim thinks nothing of skimming the accounts, selling worthless bonds and biting the hands that fed him from the oldest profession.

He leaves to make his way in the world taking most of the brothel profits with him and deciding to buy a slave. At the slave market there are jokes about a pair of pre-owned slaves as the trader tries to get rid of slow moving stock. Jim buys Blanke. Blanke robs him but together they are set upon by highwaymen and left naked until a Puritan, one Blind Pugh (Norris has read Treasure Island) rescues them and takes them back to the Puritan Colony.

I enjoyed the Puritanical diversion. Much of it centred around the dining table where Puritan theories are expounded ("all profit is theft") and pandemonium follows. We have been asking how Jim's coat, stolen in the robbery, ended up on Poor Tim (Simon Paisley Day). It is in the Puritan household that we first hear the history of John Blanke from Dahomey to the Americas via Lancashire England.

Act Two kicks off with a 21st century political summit invaded by Occupy protestors. We switch back to the eighteenth century where Hessian mercenaries are fighting the war of independence and to New York. In New York there is society at the Low Family mansion on Manhattan Island. Hence the title, just as you were thinking it was an allusion to not "the high road". A dramatised performance of John Blanke's story provides some meta theatrical jokes as Blanke complains, "I'd sooner abandon the performance outright than provide low comedy when we should provide nobler sentiments."

Bruce Norris, whose previous Royal Court plays were the Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park and the fascinating, The Pain and The Itch Norris was commissioned by the Court to write The Low Road on the strength of these prior successes. The play is stuffed full of wit and epigrams and Norris has an ear for a send up of the quainter aspects of eighteenth century speech.

Dominic Cooke holds together a 20 strong cast in 120 period costumes and Johnny Flynn puts in a tour de force of a performance as the charming but unscrupulous entrepreneur who will stop at nothing to make a fast buck. Despite his exploitative actions, he is ever charming and his expletives get many of the best laughs for their exquisite timing.

It is left to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's slave, John Blanke to show true majesty, considerably better spoken, and more eloquent, than his slave owner. Bill Paterson's Adam Smith gives wry commentaries opening and closing acts. As Pugh (Ian Gelder) comments to Jim, "Tis one thing to admit the inescapable cruelty of nature, friend, but quite a different one to encourage it."

Johnny Flynn, as I have never appreciated him before, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith give wonderful performances. But Bruce Norris' apocryphal tale of early capitalism loses its way in an overly long evening.

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The Low Road
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Dominic cooke

Starring: Johnny Flynn, Bill Paterson, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Simon Paisley Day, Elizabeth Berrington, Ian Gelder
With: Jared Ashe, Jack Benjamin, Kit Benjamin, Helen Cripps, Charlyne Francis, raj Ghatak, Natasha Gordon, Ellie Kendrick, Edward Killingback, Frederick Neilson/Will Thompson, Harry Peacock, Leigh Quinn, John Ramm, Joseph Rowe
Designed by Tom Pye
Composer: Gary Yershon
Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman
Sound Designer: Carolyn Dowling
Running time: Three hours including an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 11th May 2013
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th March 2013 performance at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)

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