Dominic Cooke comes full circle for his final production as Artistic Director at the Royal Court theatre, directing this new play by Clybourne Park writer Bruce Norris whose 2007 drama The Pain And The Itch marked the first production in Cooke’s tenure at the Sloane Square venue.
Abandoned as a baby in pre-revolutionary America, Jim Trumpett – believed to be the son of a certain G Washington from Virginia – matures into an entrepreneurial man who succeeds in turning his childhood home, a brothel in Massachusetts, into a profitable business. Destined for success and fortune, Jim leaves his adopted family for the low road, a journey that leads to encounters with a black slave, gun-toting thieves and near death, on multiple occasions.
Through Jim’s obstacle-ridden journey, Norris charts the rise of the western economic system, exploring capitalism through a metaphor of bees, a concept made famous by Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable Of The Bees several decades before economist Adam Smith – the narrator of Norris’ play – came to the fore.
Bill Paterson’s performance as the Scottish pioneer provides the glue that holds The Low Road’s chapters together, as he weaves in and out of scenes in order to explain on stage events and the motivations behind them. A post-interval interlude, which takes us to a political conference in the 21st century, makes you question whether this is still the same play, but Simon Paisley Day’s brash Dick Trumpett links the centuries together before the action returns to its original setting with the help of Paterson’s comically dry narration.
Johnny Flynn, who returns to the Royal Court theatre following his performance in Jez Butterworth’s hit play Jerusalem and Richard Bean’s The Heretic, gives an engaging performance as Jim, an advocate for individualism with exceptional money-making abilities and a hatred for taxation whose recurrent misfortunes provide some of the play’s most entertaining moments.
But this is not solely a play of politics and numbers. Themes of race, slavery and the maltreatment of women are dealt with too, as Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s likeable and aspiring John Blanke, the well-educated slave who Jim purchases on his journey, fights for a fairer wage, the abolition of slavery and a better future for black people.
Paisley Day’s comic performance as a compassionless colonel and witty quips from Elizabeth Berrington’s Mrs Trumpett and Belinda help weave an invigorating wit through The Low Road’s more complex subject matter of capitalism and free market economics, but it is the play’s unexpected and somewhat bizarre conclusion that remains the most memorable moment of Cooke’s final production.