The Observer reviews The Pain and The Itch


Dominic Cooke's smashing production of The Pain and the Itch is a standard-bearer for the new Royal Court. It's Cooke's first production as artistic director, and he has tagged it as a drama that marks a shift in policy. It is, he thinks, a play that will make the theatre's audiences, accustomed to trooping into Sloane Square to squinny at the underclasses, shudder at themselves for a change.

Cooke promises to be a first-rate artistic director, but these arguments aren't faultless: it can't be a good thing for a theatre to peer, BBC-ishly, at its audience before deciding on its programme; and in any case, to aim precisely to mirror the lives of its spectators would be daft - how many tramps go to see Waiting for Godot? Still, he's done well in programming Bruce Norris's play. It's sharp and sturdy and surprising, a latter-day variation of Ibsen's Ghosts, with the bonus of good jokes.

A liberal American family come together for Thanksgiving. They behave, as drama democrats always do, undemocratically. Granma (finely doolally Amanda Boxer, in smock, straggly bun and permanent benignity) prefaces every other sentence with her socialist credentials and looks with startled pride when a Muslim cab driver refers to a soufflé ('You know the word?'). One of her sons is a defensive house husband, played with considerable subtlety by Matthew Macfadyen, who goes from smug to cross with a wave of his oven gloves. The other is a bullying plastic surgeon whose East European girlfriend hoots at the idea of Granma's socialism as she sprays let's-liquidate-the-Gypsies remarks around the immaculate sitting room. At the centre of the rows and self-justifications is a small girl with an irritated vulva: she's given an extraordinary glum aplomb by Shannon Kelly.

There aren't many surprises in the characters here, and career woman as control-freak bitch could perhaps do with a little honing. Still, the twists of the plot are exquisitely unwound. Robert Innes Hopkins's clever design - which, with its big windows and open staircase, boasts of frankness yet conceals crannies - perfectly projects the breezy, confident lying at the play's centre. The Pain and the Itch is not a departure for the whole of play-writing, but it is a departure for the Court. Not least because its quick-witted acerbity comes, like the barbs of Restoration drama, in a headily enjoyable form.