The scene is a slick modern apartment in urban America. The sofas are cream, spotlights smatter the ceiling, a widescreen telly and an Ipod docked in its speaker system provide the accoutrements to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Its occupants are married couple Clay and Kelly, young daughter Kayla and a baby, joined for dinner by Clay’s brother Cash, their mother Carol and Cash’s girlfriend Kalina. Caroline Bishop went to the first night of The Pain And The Itch…
Playwright Bruce Norris introduces us to Clay and Kelly, perched on the sofa clutching the baby, casting their ever-so-concerned gazes on a man – later disclosed as cab driver Mr Hadid. He has suffered a bereavement, we find out, but who, how and why is saved for later. Throughout the play Mr Hadid – invited guest in the household – observes the goings-on, the relationships, the squabbles and the attitudes of this particular social group from the position of an outsider, a fly on the wall, as is the audience.
What he observes is a couple obsessed with minor preoccupations – who, or what, is biting chunks out of un-peeled avocados? – and believing they are constructing the ideal life while being dishonest about it in the process. Their upbringing of Kayla bends to all the usual politically-correct, fun-less rules: no smoking in front of her, no playing games relating to firearms, no makeup (“masculine objectification”, says Kelly). They like to think they are liberal, understanding, cultured, worldly-wise, born out of a background of ‘crazy’ frivolity into responsible, socially aware adults. But underneath is social guilt and indignation over their relative wealth, an undercurrent of snobbery (in Kelly, less undercurrent, more overlay) and hypocrisy.
While Mr Hadid makes a searing point with innocent questions – how much are Clay’s shoes?; why don’t they get their ‘distressed’ table fixed? – Cash is a more obvious critical voice to his brother’s lifestyle, as the cynical plastic surgeon, who, at least, is honest about his own less-than-peachy values.
Cleverly constructed by Norris and with dialogue which makes its point with every line, The Pain And The Itch is a hilariously cynical satire with some disturbingly recognisable, and unsympathetic, characters. Matthew Macfadyen acts Clay as a man always attempting to do the right thing but getting confused in the process, trying to disguise the marital problems with his sharp, uptight wife (Sara Stewart) while dealing with his own long-held familial insecurities. Andrea Riseborough grabs much of the laughter as the no-nonsense, fun-loving Kalina, who puts a spanner in Kelly’s politically-correct works at every turn and undermines Kelly’s precious claims of ‘abuse’. Peter Sullivan is an unpleasantly cynical Cash while Amanda Boxer is spot-on as the innocently racist mother Carol. Shannon Kelly as Kayla, meanwhile, is an expert screamer.
In the bitter denouement Norris shows this middle-class construct for what it is: a blanket of Ipod and anti-smoking policy which covers up the ugly elements of human nature that they pretend they don’t succumb to, or if they do, of course they are not to blame…
The Pain And The Itch plays at the Royal Court