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FringeReview UK 2022

Straight Line Crazy

Bridge Theatre, NT Live

Genre: Drama, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Online Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: Bridge Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Nick Hytner, Designer Bob Crowley, Lighting Designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, Sound Designer George Dennis, Composer George Fenton, Associate Director Jamie Armitage.

Broadcast Team Director for Screen, Robin Lough, Technical Producer Christopher C Bretnall, Lighting Director Bernie Davis, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher, Script Supervisor Annie McDougall.

Till June 18th.


‘Mr Moses. A visit from the Old Testament’ sneers Guy Paul’s adamantine Henry Vanderbilt at the start of David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy, set first in 1926. By the second act – in 1955 – steamrollering city planner Robert Moses had ‘beaten the slum-dwellers, he’d beaten the aristocrats’ his disillusioned assistant Mariah Heller notes: ‘But now he’d taken on a far deadlier enemy… the middle classes.’

One of them, Helen Schlesinger’s Jane Jacobs, gives us the title that describes the man. She wants to swerve him. Over thirty years the democratic visionary turns petrol-heading tyrant, obsessed with freeways, vetoing railroads.

Though a play only Hare, or possibly his old colleague Howard Brenton, might contemplate, it was unusually Director Nick Hytner’s inspiration, reading Robert A Caro’s’ thousand-page biography The Power Broker, from 1974. We get this from a revealing filmed interview. Unlike the narrative sweep of The Lehmann Trilogy, the play’s nearest recent relation, Hare focuses on just two key moments in Moses’ career: zenith and nemesis. Sort of. Moses died in 1981, nearing 93; you could as Hare admitted, write decades of plays around this one colossus.

And inevitably there’s The Master Builder, Hare’s 2016 version of Ibsen, middle-class youth knocking at the door. From inside Moses’ office, as well as clamouring without. Expressways for ordinary people? Maybe not ordinary enough. A late theme – a casual smashing-through poor neighbourhoods, nearly always people of colour – pitches us into a new age: nimbyism, yes; but civil rights too.

It’s an unusually collaborative play, then. With Ralph Fiennes as Moses Hare seems to take Hytner’s permission to go for broke. Even more, this is a play staggered with monologues, particularly Fiennes and Danny Webb’s Governor Al Smith, the only man Moses respects as much as himself. The only one who shares his initially democratic vision of opening highroads through Long Island all the people – not just the rich – can revel in.

During late rehearsals it seems much nervously interpolating dialogue still in the text gets stripped out as Fiennes and Webb blue-pencil and red-mark their territories, spraying words like gangsters or tom-cats. Even Hare, you feel, hadn’t quite blown all his inhibitions away. Vast two-page speeches in effect, now utterly grip. You just can’t do that sort of thing these days. Trusting each other so completely, they have.

Fiennes is coiled majesty. Bourbon-fed, cigar-chomping with a Homberg (this does sound T S Eliot-ish), Webb gives the performance of his life as saw-voiced Smith ‘just dropping in’ (just, repeatedly, till Moses is cornered). Smith bargains, outwits and is outwitted by his friend and antagonist, as Moses angles a favour via a judge and a lunch, to remit a fine. In return Smith wants a railroad Moses is determined never to build. It’s the most magnificent scene Hare’s written in decades and this must be his finest play since Skylight in 1995, most potent since The Absence of War two years earlier.

Much is filtered through Moses’ assistants, principally Siobhan Cullen’s Finnuala Connell, the young Irishwoman wanting to be an architect, settling as planner. Cullen’s knowing, sometimes enthused but always careful Connell, frays reluctantly into questions.

Cullen’s the only one whose hair touches thirty more years: bar spectacles and a wheelchair, no-one else ages; though Fiennes subtly stiffens (another tiny dimension of his mastery here), less wildly expressive with his arms.

There’s Samuel Barnett’s nervous, bullied, loyal Ariel Porter, from Oklahoma. He’s deliciously pushed into ‘up to a point’ caveats. Finally there’s Alisha Bailey’s forthright Mariah Heller, idealist full of Corbusier and Gropius; just eight months arrived in the second act. With relatives in the endangered Bronx, she speaks truth to power till Moses tells Connell to ‘get rid of her’ which, refusing to do, pushes Connell to speeches of her own.

Designer Bob Crowley’s flexible thrust-stage features a set of design-tables upstage and down, blue-freighted with maps. In the second act, one map is the floor, pre-empted by a civic meeting chaired in a huddle. We’re left though with an oak desk crosswise, as 1955 Moses baulks the once free-flowing office energy with ossified patriarchy. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting plays solo spotlights too, insinuates tyrannical solitude. George Fenton’s music, throbbingly late-romantic-American, recalls Howard Hanson. George Dennis’ sound seems, like buildings, to growl upwards.

With Webb gone, the second act can’t quite evoke such titanic clashes. But there’s compensatory highlights from those left or joining. Barnett, Schlesinger, and particularly Cullen and Bailey. The latter in between being compromised in a meeting in loco Moses, is superbly eloquent, the voice of youth Cullen’s Connell recalls was once hers.

There’s a host of nay-sayers too, who do much in the first half of Act Two. Schlesinger’s Jacobs is gifted both solo spots and spiralling speeches nailed with metaphor, a steely class act Moses can’t compete with. And doesn’t – he refuses to confront his antagonist directly: Hare turns the office staff in on itself.

There’s strong work from Jacobs’ seconds; Alan Maria’s piercing chair Shirley Hayes, standing for Black communities, also given monologues. And allies like Al Coppola’s interpolating Sandy McQuade, Mary Stillwagon-Stewart’s jabbing Nicole Savage who jumps in every time a sneer’s levelled at Jacobs: ‘you know nothing about her.’ Dani Mosley’s Carol Amis and Ian Kirkby’s Lewis Mason are luxury casting – silently swelling that civic meeting. Even Vanderbilt’s butler Fergus (David Bromley) gets a couple of lines. This really is Hytner rivalling the National in casting largesse.

The slow-burn finale resolves, even if the end just tails away with a few fourth-walls. Two-and-a-half hours of such material though have rarely been so thrilling.

Robin Lough’s broadcast team swoop in and enrich close-ups. Even the Bridge’s sightlines can’t compete. It does underscore elements, like the finale, almost work as screenplay – happily those theatrical gestures at the end push back at this.

Moses started by creating parks for all. His biggest challenge comes when he wants to wreck one. Is Moses a bulldozer for good? Bulldozing hasn’t any reverse gears. In depicting such monomaniacal  conviction, Hare prints a parable for all flawed crusaders, ones who plough humanity for freedom and raze communities to let in the air.