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The clearest indicator of the quality of The Low Road at the Royal Court is that a scene in which twelve characters sit at a table debating the scriptural basis of capitalism is as entertaining as the expertly realised scenes of broader comedy. Employing inventive and hugely skilful physical means to tell the story of a foundling’s journey to (inadvertently) establish a banking dynasty, the cast move between costumes, characters and epochs with a rapidity that in lesser hands might be bewildering but in this brilliantly performed and realised production is simply accepted as occasionally breathtaking fait accompli. As well as being a superb piece of theatre technically, however, it is also a profound example of the use of theatre to explore political and moral problems in a way that engages head and heart while allowing the audience to be aware of their interactions.

In a piece which relies on the smooth working together of an ensemble on and off stage, it is slightly invidious to single out individuals. In the central role of Jim Trumpett, however, Johnny Flynn pulls off the feat of making a reprehensible chancer loveable while not concealing his baseness from us (even if it remains firmly hidden from the character’s awareness). Bill Paterson gives the narrative role of Adam Smith an amiable pomposity that allows his character to direct the audience to the interval while keeping the tension of the melodramatic cliffhanger intact. Similarly, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith gives the role of John Blanke a dignity and integrity which both he and the character seem to relish jeopardising. For her part, Ellie Kendrick clearly has enormous fun in her three roles, finding a physical intensity which is simultaneously completely aware and totally unconscious of its absurdity.

For me, though, the trio of pitch-perfect characterisations by Elizabeth Berrington deserve special acknowledgement. Whether portraying the generous dishonesty of a brothelkeeper (celebrating the subterfuge that ends the action with a cheery exclamation that justice has been done), the icy precision of an Economic Forum conference chair (‘And just to be clear, this is not the plenary session’) or the fragile delusion of an eighteenth-century philanthropist who wonders whether the first settlers didn’t go to America ‘partly for the unspoiled landscape’, Berrington is absolutely confident in her performance while never succumbing to the temptation to steal a scene. In a first-rate cast, she is a pleasure to watch.

None of this, of course, would work if the script and the direction were not superb. But they are. Dominic Cooke’s direction of a piece that could be incomprehensible is assured and meticulous. Bruce Norris’s script, meanwhile, always knows the line between poignance and sentimentality and clearly understands the Brechtian principle that in order to truly have engaged an audience they have to laugh at the characters’ tears and cry at their laughter. Norris is even brave enough to have one character speculate on the possibility that ‘a work of dramatic intention can prick our hearts by shewing us the humanity of those depicted’ – while playing such an idea for laughs. From both writer and director, the genius of the production is to commit to the moment and its contradictions inside and outside the action.

None of this should be read, however, as though there is nothing whatsoever to criticise in this production. Act One is an eighteenth-century romp whose foundlings and characters could have been lifted in their richness from Henry Fielding. Act Two, however, seemed to lose its way slightly as it tried to develop the themes of race and gender that the first raised while clearly leaving them subordinate to the central economic issue – namely ‘Tis one thing to admit the inescapable cruelty of nature, friend, but quite a different one to encourage it.’ In wrestling with the issues and finding a resolution to a complex plot, the laser-guided focus of the play dissipates slightly, the storytelling and analysis slightly less securely connected.

But though it doesn’t find clear answers, and even if at times the formulation of those questions takes second place to a dramatic tour de force, The Low Road is always asking (or trying to ask) the right questions. Emerging from the Royal Court on the high that follows witnessing a piece of drama that truly engages as well as entertains, the flagship stores of designer labels that encompass Sloane Square confront the alert audience member with concrete evidence that the dilemmas of western affluence are far from resolved. Do we, in the words of one character, ‘having crashed the car once […] want to hand the keys back to the same drunken driver?’

And if we do, do we first need to ask ourselves if we are the ones who will really pay the price? Sitting outside a café off the Kings Road, my sisters and I were served (politely and cheerfully) by a young black woman who shivered beneath the company-branded fleece she wore to serve overpriced (Fairtrade?) coffee in a bitter wind. ‘If you really want to make the world a better place,’ says one unpleasant character at the beginning of Act Two, ‘first thing you gotta do is help yourself.’ Easy for him to say – but where and how do we balance the cooperative with the competitive, as the final deus ex machina puts it.The Low Road does not have the answers but should provoke a great discussion of the questions. Probably over expensive coffee on the Kings Road. And the invisible hand so fulsomely extolled by Adam Smith won’t make that.

The Low Road by Bruce Norris, directed by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, 23 March-11 May 2013. Text published by Nick Hern Books, price £9.99.

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