Clybourne Park

Howden Park Centre, Livingston,

Three stars

Touring until October 12

The Signalman

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Four stars

At Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

October 1-5


“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” So asks the great African-American poet Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem ‘Harlem’.

This question, asked pointedly of a United States that was, then as now, reluctant to grant racial justice, would give rise to two award-winning American dramas: namely, Lorraine Hansberry’s semi-autobiographical A Raisin in the Sun (named New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play of 1959) and Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s 2010 response to Hansberry’s opus (which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, before being showered with awards when it opened in London).

Norris’s drama, which is currently being toured around Scotland by Michael Emans’s Rapture Theatre company, is the quintessential “play of two halves”. Set in 1959 and 2009 (the latter, significantly, being the year of Barack Obama’s first election as President), it is concerned with the fortunes of a property in the fictional, white Chicago neighbourhood of Clybourne Park.

In Act I white couple Russ and Bev Stoller (who have suffered the suicide of their son, who, under orders, committed war crimes against civilians in Korea) are on the brink of vacating their newly sold home. With the Stollers’ black servant Francine and her husband Albert in attendance, white neighbour Karl Lindner arrives to explain his plan to buy out the black purchasers of the property, and thereby maintain the racial demographic (and property prices) of the neighbourhood.

In Act II we are witness to a meeting between black couple Kevin and Lena, their white counterparts Steve and Lindsey and their respective lawyers. The issue at hand is Steve and Lindsey’s plan to pull down their newly acquired property in the now predominantly black and gentrifying Clybourne Park and erect a new and considerably taller house.

The play shifts from the brutally straightforward segregation of a supposedly liberal, northern US city in the 1950s to the complex racial politics of the early-21st century. As it does so, one wonders if the adulation for the piece says more about the tastes of critics in the US and London than it does about the quality of Norris’s drama.

Whilst there is some fine and witty writing here, there is also a decided lack of subtlety. This is especially true of Act II, in which petty bourgeois niceties break down when mutual suspicion gives way to a series of “jokes” intended to test boundaries of “offence”, not only as regards race, but also gender and sexual orientation.

The “ironic” obviousness of Norris’s device undermines any comparisons one might make between his play and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons or David Mamet’s Oleanna. Which is a shame because Emans’s production (which boasts impressively detailed, naturalistic sets by designer Ken Harrison) is blessed with a fine, eight-strong cast; indeed, respect is due to actors who managed to put in a tight and vital performance of the drama in front of a painfully small audience on a wet Tuesday night in Livingston.

From a relatively large scale play (by current theatrical standards) to a monodrama in the shape of Peter Arnott’s The Signalman. Presented at Glasgow’s lunchtime theatre at Oran Mor ahead of a transfer to the Traverse, Edinburgh, the drama is the companion piece to Arnott’s Tay Bridge, which premiered recently at Dundee Rep.

Like its sibling play, The Signalman takes as its subject the Tay Bridge disaster of December 28, 1879. It is 40 years to the day since that catastrophic event and signalman Thomas Barclay (played excellently by Tom McGovern) is thinking back to that fateful, tempestuous night.

Barclay recalls the frenzied legal inquiry that followed the disaster, in which at least 74 passengers and crew on the Wormit to Dundee service lost their lives. In doing so, he also recalls his experience of the events.

Aged just 24, he ventured out of his signal box and was flung onto the tracks by the force of the wind. Following a terrifying crawl along a section of the bridge, fear of falling into the tumultuous river sent him back.

Arnott has given McGovern a wonderfully vivid, affecting and pleasingly varied monologue. The moments of humour (particularly the absurd pride of Barclay’s parents when their son is called to give his testimony in court) are as unexpected as they are entertaining.

The 64-year-old signalman speaks with a stark, insightful anger about the Establishment’s need to find a scapegoat for the disaster. They were, he says, “humiliated” that such symbols of their progress and power as the great Tay Bridge and the North British Railway should have come so catastrophically undone.

Director Ken Alexander’s fine production is enhanced by a simple-but-effective signal box set (which is lit brilliantly by Ross Kirkland and Chris Reilly), as well as atmospheric music and sound by Jon Beales. Most memorable, however, is McGovern’s powerful and intense performance.

For tour dates for Clybourne Park, visit: