It’s always a pleasure to visit the Bridge Theatre, and especially on a crisp but stunningly beautiful day like last Saturday, with the sun high in the sky giving a glorious view over Tower Bridge and the Tower of London from outside the theatre’s front door. I booked this show fairly pronto after it was announced last year because the promise of the Bridge Theatre, Ralph Fiennes and a new David Hare play is, for me, about as winning a combination as you can get.
Straight Line Crazy doesn’t tell the full story of hugely influential New York urban developer Robert Moses, but rather two significant periods in his life and career. I’d never heard of Robert Moses, apparently a very famous figure, which makes me frankly ignorant and I’m not proud of it. Act One is set in 1926 – pre-crash – where Moses has his heart set on opening up the beaches and parks of Long Island by creating new expressways for the motor car, no matter the nimbyism of the local landowners. Act Two takes us to 1955, and his proposal to carve up Washington Square Park with a road straight through the middle, which he says would alleviate the traffic congestion into Lower Manhattan.
The young Moses is brash and bold, with a propensity to start digging his new roads before he gets the official go-ahead; consultation is for wimps, problems can be glossed over with a little help from his influential contacts, and official fines are just part and parcel of his daily work. The older Moses doesn’t seem to have learned from his mistakes – in fact he doesn’t recognise that he can make a mistake; and his practice of riding roughshod over authority has developed into full-scale bullying of anyone who gets in his way.
Not only that, his personality flaws that are suggested in Act One have grown into proper monstrosity by Act Two. His misogyny, his racism and his contempt for the poor have run riot. He wants to open up parks and beaches but only for the right sort of people. No rapid transit access, just the motor car is king. And if you can’t afford a car – you can’t take advantage of his planning, simples. He brooks no criticism, under any circumstances; in the early days, his colleagues opted to be yes men, to stay in his good books and protect their own careers. Come the 1950s, Moses is surrounded by one faithful worker who has supported him throughout and sacrificed his own life and health as a consequence; another who realises they have taken their relationship as far as they can stand; and a third, younger, employee who has the guts to tell him how it is. You’re no different from anyone else, Mr Moses. Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.
Nicholas Hytner’s magnificent production uses that wonderfully adaptive thrust stage at the Bridge to perfect effect, suggesting the opulent but sterile home of the Vanderbilts, the cantankerous atmosphere of the Washington Square Park protest meetings, or – mainly – the extensive draughtsmen’s workspace at Moses’ office. David Hare has written a play dripping with telling lines, mixing humour and hideousness in equal measure, revealing its characters’ motivations and personalities with subtlety and delicacy. As always, David Hare has a lot to say, and it’s a pleasure to take it all in. There are themes of democracy and truth, prejudice and bullying, corruption and decency, community and selfishness; all woven together in Hare’s inimitable intelligent and gripping style.
The whole cast give us a masterclass in acting, but you can’t take anything away from Ralph Fiennes’ extraordinary performance as Moses. As a younger man provocative and insinuating, ambitious and determined; as an older man complacent and indulged, implacable and deaf to criticism. At a risk of sounding like Pseuds Corner, Hare provides all the ingredients for a characterisation of complexity, and Fiennes cooks them to perfection. You can’t take your eyes – or ears – off him.
Siobhán Cullen is fantastic as Finnuala Connell, the draughtswoman who must tread a fine line between her natural assertiveness and her requirement to give the boss what he needs to hear. She is accompanied by the excellent Samuel Barnett as Ariel Porter, Moses’ other long-time employee, quietly suppressing his own thoughts and needs, whilst genuinely wanting to support his boss and help him through hard times. There’s a brilliant cameo performance by Danny Webb as Governor Al Smith, full of bluster and exuberance, trying to assert his own authority over Moses but fighting to resist dipping his toes in the world of corruption.
Alisha Bailey is excellent as the young Mariah Heller, who’s not afraid of saying what she thinks (actually, she portrays perfectly that she is afraid, but is going to speak her mind anyway!) There are smart supporting performances from Guy Paul as the arrogant Vanderbilt, Alana Maria as the enraged Shirley Hayes and Helen Schlesinger as the journalist and activist Jane Jacobs, who opposed Moses’ vision of town planning and whose role in the play you might have thought would have been developed further than it is. Perhaps it would have been, in a play about his life as a whole, rather than concentrating on just these two major moments of his career.
One of those fantastic theatrical experiences where all kinds of brilliant collide together to make a superb production. Straight Line Crazy plays at the Bridge Theatre until 18th June and it’s a must.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan