White Noise at the Bridge Theatre

‘Sometimes entertaining in a despairing way, sometimes alarming’: WHITE NOISE – Bridge Theatre ★★★★

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Bridge Theatre, London – until 13 November 2021

This feels like a howl of baffled frustration, from a millennial generation (writer and director, and all four characters) unable to deal with the emotional legacy of a long-ago slave trade: none of them yet, often to their credit,  finding it possible in today’s America to follow Marley’s instruction and “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”.  A long stage thrusts defiantly into the audience:  eventually becomes a shooting-range, with a nice mechanical coup-de-theatre taking us by surprise first time (good old Bridge!). But first, it has to roll us into the bedroom and kitchen of two interracial  American couples as their old college foursome-friendship disintegrates.

Suzan-Lori Parks (a Pulitzer winner) in 2016 called it her “angry play”;  reworked for this European premiere directed by Polly Findlay, it is angrier still after the George Floyd murder and the confused angers of identity politics and easy offence.  The young people’s hidden attitudes glide like monsters under a smooth veneer of well-meaning wokery. Sometimes it is entertaining in a despairing sort of way; sometimes alarming.

Leo is a nervy, insomniac black artist not doing well, living with Dawn, a right-on white lawyer; Ralph is a well-off liberal lecturer whose girlfriend Misha runs a whoopingly cheerful online show called “Ask a black!!” Showily supportive to Misha, really Ralph is  seething at losing a promotion he wanted to a Sri Lankan. There’s a sly suggestion that not being of African heritage, the brown man doesn’t really count anyway.  Meanwhile, Leo has been stopped and thrown on the pavement by police.  Dawn wants him to sue,  but he doesn’t trust the system to be on his side,  and instead demands that  Ralph buys him as a slave.   What?  Well,  “Back in the day”  , Leo reckons, a powerful man’s slave would have protection as a chattel. It is mad and tasteless, even for the forty days Ralph unwillingly agrees to. But the strength of the play is that we can both see his mad ideological reasoning and see that he is on the edge of a breakdown anyway.  One of the group immediately assumes it’s performance-art, being videoed, which again tells us something about the times.

It plays on, sometimes for laughs but increasingly frightening as white Ralph, naturally,  gets a taste for being Master.  Even joins an absurd White Club which endorses him.  One  scene has the whole audience gasping, no spoiler here.  The second half in particular is peppered with monologues,   sometimes too long but rich in ideas about racial  misunderstanding and the sort of  hostility that gets a friendly well meant gesture condemned as  “white saviour!”.   It tangles  with other human discomforts:  unequal relationships, money and class. Ken Nwosu is amazing as Leo, Helena Wilson every inch the liberal lawyer in a permanent bind of guilt,  and Faith Omole beautifully evokes the irritation of a sophisticated black woman who, to get attention for her show has to “perform blackness” by playing the cartoonish bouncy diva her audience expect.

It is, frankly,  a stretch to believe how rapidly the slavemaster experience turns Ralph into a complete fascist, but that’s the only cavil. There’s a sex scene, a betrayal, which I suppose is pretty much compulsory, but adds nothing but more pessimism.   If  the message is that none of us can easily escape our slaver-or-saviour mentality,   it’s a grim one.  On the other hand,  irrespective of race you might notice that it’s the two men who go nuts,  and the women who don’t. Make of that what you will…

Box office bridgetheatre.co.uk.  To 13 november

Rating. Four.

 

‘Sometimes entertaining in a despairing, sometimes alarming’: @lib_thinks gets the grim millennial message in the European premiere of Suzan Lori Parks’ #WhiteNoise at @_BridgeTheatre. ★★★★ #theatrereviews

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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