Legit Review: ‘The Low Road’

London bow of new Bruce Norris play is lively, lengthy but thin

With 20 actors racing between 50 roles across a time-traveling plot, Bruce Norris’ “The Low Road” is a cross between a pageant and a parable. Dominic Cooke’s supremely witty, fleet-footed production has ebullience aplenty to match this attractively ambitious satire of free-market economics. But even with all guns blazing, the production cannot disguise the fact that, unlike Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” beneath the freewheeling, scornful surface there’s more attitude than substance.

“I’m saying we’ve crashed the car once; do we really want to hand the keys back to the same drunken driver?” So says retired financier Ed (Ian Gelder) at the G8-style conference that opens the second act. His idea and, evidently, Norris’, is that it might be time to regulate financial markets that have so warped the productive economy. However, the entire (very funny) scene comes as a surprise since the rest of the play takes place in the mid-late 18th century.

Alighting upon the fact that the still-revered economist Adam Smith’s most famous thesis “The Wealth of Nations” was published in the not-insignificant year of 1776, Norris uses Smith as narrator for this portrait of the abiding American principle of the pursuit of profit. Thus smiling, peerlessly droll Bill Paterson sets up and effortlessly drives the picaresque adventures of anti-hero Jim Trumpett (Johnny Flynn) discovered as an infant in 1759 on the doorstep of a whorehouse.

Trumpett, who may or may not be the bastard child of George Washington, grows and wises up fast. From taking personal control of the whorehouse’s finances, he inveighs against the notion of taxation (while creaming off profits for himself) and becomes ever more ruthlessly self-serving before launching himself upon the world.

Sketch-like early scenes acquire more resonance once he buys a slave, John Blanke. In Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s beautifully effortless performance, Blanke has all the acuity, compassion and grace that Trumpett lacks. Of course, what Blanke doesn’t have is the power that comes with free self-determination. From there on in, their stories are literally and metaphorically shackled together.

With a flair for 18th-century swagger and linguistic pastiche, it’s as if Norris is rewriting Fielding’s “Tom Jones” or an inverted version of “Candide.” Like the latter, Trumpett repeatedly learns nothing new, but he applies his persuasive economic logic to every circumstance he meets, climaxing in his control of the finances of wealthy benefactors Isaac Low (John Ramm) which he takes into the disastrous and borderline illegal realms of debt purchase with increasingly fatal consequences.

This whistle-stop tour of moral and financial double-dealing offers ample opportunity for a succession of comic turns, but enjoyable though much of the jokey ride is, the play hits repeat mode early. Having posited its position, it merely underlines it.

Tom Pye’s highly versatile design creates multiple locations with, striking economy and the quick-change actors seize every opportunity. Elizabeth Berrington scores particularly highly as a madam, a charity-loving society hostess and, best of all, a patronizing and pressurized conference hostess.

Simon Paisley Day too shines as a dim but sly army officer and brings dignity to the mentally disabled Poor Tim, who has the play’s closing sad moment. His character’s inability to cope, much less thrive, in the economics that engulf him directly echoes the close of Caryl Churchill’s influential “Top Girls,” which, three decades ago, also showed the personal cost of selfish economics. The comparison is, alas, not in Norris’s favor.

The most intriguing thing about the play is that it is receiving its world preem in London. If any U.S. theater has the resources to mount a show of this scale, its assault on its home country’s finances and philanthropic underpinning may land a bigger punch.

The Low Road

Royal Court Theater, London; 386 seats; (£28) $42 top

A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Brice Norris. Directed by Dominic Cooke.

Sets and costumes, Tom Pye; lighting, Jean Kalman; sound, Carolyn Downing; music, Gary Yershon; movement, Imogen Knight; production stage manager, Nafeesah Butt. Opened, reviewed March 27, 2013. Running time: 3 HOURS.

With Johnny Flynn, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Bill Paterson, Elizabeth Berrington, Ian Gelder, Simon Paisley Day, John Ramm, Jared Ashe, Jack Benjamin, Kit Benjamin, Helen Cripps, Raj Ghatak, Natasha Gordon, Ellie Kendrick, Edward Killingback, Fredrick Neilson, Harry Peacock, Leigh Quinn.

Legit Review: 'The Low Road'

More Legit

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

  • Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac to Star in Anton Chekhov's 'Three Sisters' Adaptation

    Greta Gerwig and Oscar Isaac are taking on an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” for New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. The company announced on Tuesday that they will feature two final performances to round out the 2019 to 2020 season, including the Chekhov play. “Three Sisters” will be directed by Tony award-winning Sam [...]

  • montreal just for laughs Comedy Festival

    Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival Is the 'Coachella of Comedy'

    Every summer, Montreal becomes the epicenter of the comedy world as the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival takes over the Canadian city. Now in its 37th year, the mindboggling scale of the festival is there in the numbers: more than 1,600 artists from across the globe (speaking English, French and other languages) performing 250 shows [...]

  • The dark Manhatten skyline, seen from

    StubHub Refunds $500,000 to Customers Shut Out by New York Blackout

    Saturday’s blackout in New York had an outsized effect on the city’s nightlife, with Madison Square Garden and the entire Broadway district seeing multiple shows cancelled due to the the power outage. As a result, StubHub has refunded more than $500,000 worth of tickets for cancelled events. According to a statement from the company, the StubHub [...]

  • Warner Music Group Logo

    Warner Music Acquires Musical Theater Indie First Night Records

    Warner Music Group has acquired First Night Record, an independent record label for West End and Broadway musical theatre cast recordings. The company will be overseen by WMG’s Arts Music Division, led by President Kevin Gore. First Night co-founder John Craig will join the Arts Music team under a multi-year consulting agreement to identify and record musical theatre productions in [...]

  • Broadway

    Broadway Back In Biz After Power Outage Ends

    The bright lights of Broadway were back on Sunday morning as midtown Manhattan recovered from a power outage that lasted nearly seven hours in some areas. Social media was full of examples of how New Yorkers rose to the occasion after the power went out on a hot Saturday night shortly before 7 p.m. ET. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content