En route to Sloane Square I blithely used a Barclay’s cashpoint, paid for a sandwich with Visa, bought a drink in Starbucks and handed over a few quid for an imported frying pan in Peter Jones. Perhaps not the best preparation for a play which wittily and sharply casts a critical eye on international capitalism, but a reminder of just how closely we are all tied to it. Bruce Norris’ The Low Road, with its nods to Candide and The Beggar’s Opera, is an 18th-century roller-coaster of a play, with a couple of futuristic diversions along the way, packed with invention, intelligence, bawdy humour and economic theory. Normally my financially cool heart might sink at the arrival of Adam Smith as our narrator, but when he appears in the person of Bill Paterson we are in safe hands; he is one of the warmest stage presences imaginable. He’s giving us a lecture on the epic life of a young American entrepreneur who may or may not be the bastard son of George Washington. Steely Jim Trumpett cuts his financial teeth at his adopted mother’s brothel, before venturing out into the best-of-all-possible-caplitalist-worlds, encountering an inspirational aristocratic slave, a Puritan highway-woman, German and British soldiers (or are they peacekeepers?), wealthy patrons and impoverished shepherds. A period would-be Gordon Gekko, Jim’s every cunning financial move echoes our own times; while I admit I’m a little shaky on the detail, I know that there’s good stuff in there about debt resale, mortgage foreclosure, universal healthcare, the Lehmann Brothers, honey productivity and banker’s bonuses. But the play keeps narrative and character to the fore, and gallops along in a rollocking unsentimental journey which inevitably ends badly for all of us. We take an enjoyable detour to a self-satisdfied 2013 and are treated to a bleak but breathtaking deus ex machina. There’s tons of energy on stage as the twenty actors play a myriad of characters: Elizabeth Berrington’s sycophantic conference leader, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s appealing slave, John Ramm’s knowing benefactor standing out, not to mention Simon Paisley Day in all of his wildly diverse roles. Johnny Flynn makes an engaging, mercenary anti-hero; he’s suitably hard to warm to, but we still care about his plight, and his scene of extended nakedness is a humorous, eye-catching bonus. With such towering ambition, the play feels slightly overwritten at times and goes a bit crazy towards the end, but it’s so bold and clever and fast that there’s always something new to enjoy… and appropriately I came out fretting over my coffee choices again. The Low Road brings to an end director Dominic Cooke’s tenure at the Court and this is certainly going out with a big economic bang – ambitious, spirited and challenging to the very last.
Photo: Johan Persson