Review: STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, Southwark Playhouse

Young Jean Lee's provocative Broadway hit runs until the 4 December

By: Nov. 17, 2021
Review: STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, Southwark Playhouse

Review: STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, Southwark Playhouse

What happens when Christmas Day becomes a playing ground to expose relationships between privilege and identity? Written by Young Jean Lee, Straight White Men is an ambitious study of those who gain the most from the world and their awareness of the power they possess.

From the outset, the sleepy Midwestern family home is doused in rainbow light, with heavy dance music vibrating through the speakers. Kim Tatum and Kamari Roméo both take on the role of Person in Charge, commanding the action on stage with theatrical flair. After introducing themselves with their pronouns and ethnic heritage, the space becomes a place of safety for the audience to critique the unfolding suburban drama.

Simon Rouse is patient and attentive Ed, a father hosting his three sons for the holidays. Ed's sons have all grown up with a college education and each embody a different stereotype of traditional masculinity. Their return home leads them to rediscover their late mother's attempts to remind of their advantages through a revamped version of Monopoly, aptly named "Privilege".

The family dynamic feels earnest as each character slips in and out of youthful hedonism, until the fun is disrupted by Matt's disinterest in staking his claim in the world. Matt (Charlie Condou) is solemnly dedicated to resisting the red-blooded call to action from his family.

Cary Crankson as Drew evokes sympathy as the youngest sibling, insistent on crafting Matt's redemption through therapy and communication. His light humour picks up the pace between sibling tensions. Jake (Alex Mugnaioni) feels most in control due to his powerful physicality and volatile reactions; when he speaks, you have no choice but to listen. Yet he is the embodiment of ignorance, desperate to place Matt into a saviour role as an excuse for his own misgivings.

The lighting and sound (Rajiv Pattani and Mwen) are slick and modern, breathing life into the cabaret front and homely interior of Suzu Sakai's set design. The flashing sign that displays the show's title is bold and suggestive - there is no mistaking that the presence of straight white men is unavoidably felt.

The script has been carefully crafted to dissect white privilege, but it seems an opportunity is missed here by not having the Persons in Charge take control and comment more frequently. The naturalistic approach to direction and movement (Steven Kunis and Christina Fulcher respectively) is truthful enough, but there is a lack of provocation to prevent the audience from slipping into complacency.

An air of anticipation proceeds throughout, with lines being tripped at various moments by all. Ironically, the disruption is a reminder of the script's exploration and criticism of straight white men's freedom. Each of the men on stage get to move through life imperfectly and still reach a comfortable conclusion.

The 2018 debut of Straight White Men made Young Jean Lee the first Asian-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. This piece is screaming to be toyed with and the Persons in Charge are the perfect catalyst for an audience to form a critical analysis. Yet this London production slips easily into domestic drama and hovers on the edge of unlocking the full potential of Lee's writing.

Matt's lack of drive is frustrating enough to leave you questioning how we begin to confront systemic oppression if those with the greatest social power choose to be passive. How much can be achieved by talking in circles?

Straight White Men at Southwark Playhouse until 4 December

Photo credit: Anna Arthur PR

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