What springs to mind when you think of Detroit? Urban degeneration? Poverty? Perhaps nothing? Certainly, for your average Brit, the term isn’t reminiscent of the tragic fable of post-World War Two capitalism as it is in American folklore. As such, I was curious as to how well the eponymous play would translate across The Pond. Lisa D’Amour’s social-realist spectacle was a hit in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and the National obviously felt it could achieve similar success in London. Fortunately, the play requires little prior knowledge of Detroit’s gritty past, and instead is a study of the apparent stasis of the city’s now infamous suburbs.
Perhaps stasis is another term that comes to mind when we think of American suburbia. Classics such as American Beauty and Donny Darko have shone a spotlight on the nuclear family and revealed the fractured instabilities that lurk beneath the rigorously polished linoleum surface. However, Detroit is not a carbon copy of this well versed paradigm; as Martin Dines explains in the programme notes the static, uniform cliché is no longer suitable, and instead such suburbs have the “capacity for social and physical transformation”. And that’s where the audience of the National’s Cottlesloe theatre finds itself, teetering on the verge of an explosive change in the lives of Ben and Mary (Stuart McQuarrie and Justine Mitchell) – archetypal heroes of the American dream plight. Their cosy, glossy lives are interrupted by the arrival of new neighbours Kenny (Will Adamsdale) and Sharon (Clare Dunne), recovering drug addicts determined to hit the straight and narrow. But such an interruption is not unwelcome, and the young couple add a much needed dose of adrenaline to Ben and Mary’s lonely, lacklustre living. The question is, to what extent can the catatonic neighbourhood support this change, and can Kenny and Sharon adjust to their counterpart’s relatively slow and steady patio-party humdrum?
The stage atmosphere is wonderfully awkward, with the air so thick with subtext and tension you could cut it with a very blunt knife. Everything about the audience’s introduction to the performance – including the exceptionally apt garden set – begs for further exploration, and with no interval Detroit is a delightfully immersive experience with sterling performances in all corners. And with a potentially expansive and tricky subject matter, the trajectory is well focused, delving into the aforementioned pith of post-Fordist problems without inadvertently posing a host of difficult questions.
However, this rigid and well-disciplined structure is possibly the performance’s ironic flaw. Any audience yearns for progression, conflict, resolution, and somewhere along the way Detroit skipped a beat, missed a trick and stumbled slightly off balance. The reinforced static metaphor is well thought out, but the evolution is slow and often unrealised; scenes drag on and dialogue is occasionally verging on the tautologous.
But regardless, this is a decent, well-rounded production. It may not warrant the £32 price tag tied to its more prominent seats but for you, dear target audience, it can be as little as a fiver and it’s definitely worth that.
Detroit is playing at the National Theatre until 14 July. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.