Thursday, February 12, 2009

England People Very Nice at the National

Richard Bean’s recent play The English Game took a look at England through the prism of the cricket pitch. It was as warm and subtle a piece of writing as his latest is broad and brash.

Though still clearly interested in ideas of Englishness and how one becomes English, England People Very Nice deals in stereotypes and coarse humour; instead of using a fine brush it uses a stonking great roller.

Immigration is the theme and Bean focuses his attentions on Bethnal Green, the corner of East London that was once the main place of settlement for the Huguenots fleeing France, then became home to a sizeable Jewish community before becoming, as it is now, home to the largest Bengali community outside of Bangladesh.

This shifting cultural landscape is symbolised by their place of worship, the Great London Mosque on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street, formerly the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, formerly a Huguenot chuch.

Bean’s play is framed by scenes set within a detention centre for immigrants, who while waiting to hear whether they’ve been granted leave to remain in the country, have devised a piece of theatre about the various arrivals in Bethnal Green across the centuries. These scenes neatly provide the set up for a number of upcoming jokes including a delightfully silly gag about being "on the wagon."
There then follows a short introductory sequence that covers the various waves of invasion from the Romans, Saxons and Danes, bringing us up to the arrival of the Huguenots in the late 17th century, ousted from Catholic France. Next come the Irish (shown as prone to incest and criminal behaviour), then the Jews fleeing the progroms of Eastern Europe – much to the anxiety of the existing English Jews – and then, as the centuries flip further forwards, the arrival of Asian immigrants, during the Second World War and the years afterwards.

Each new set of arrivals is met with scorn by the inhabitants of the local pub, spitting venom about the "facking frogs" and "facking Micks." As each group is assimilated they are depicted as becoming hostile to those who arrive after them; it’s a cyclical process, the play is saying, as in a late scene we even see the Bengali immigrants griping about the way the Somalis are getting preferential treatment at the housing office.

Bean crams in a lot of intriguing historical detail – the bombing of the underground by anarchists at Aldersgate Station, the pelting of Orthodox Jews with bacon sandwiches by young radicals: all real events – but this sits at odds with the play’s overall broad comic tone. The cartoonish graphics projected onto the set, though amusing at times, also act as a barrier to getting emotionally involved in proceedings. Through dealing with stereotypes and rarely digging beneath the surface, Bean paints a pretty dismal picture of what it means to be an immigrant in London. Along the way, we are shown the invention of the Biro and Chicken Tikka Masala, but these barely scratch the surface of exploring how immigrants influence and enrich a culture.

A love story is streamed through the generations and this adds a brief glimmer of hope to the play, depicting how people from different backgrounds can and do connect with one another. But this is undermined by scenes in the second half that focus on how, in some parts of the Muslim community, the pattern is being reversed, how young people are becoming more traditionally minded, more fundamentalist in their thinking then their parents were. But again Bean only touches the surface, there is no real exploration of why this is happening (interestingly this opens in the week after Alia Bano’s Shades at the Royal Court, which provides a more thorough dissection of the various threads that make up the British Muslim community).

There are some nice performances from the large cast, particularly from Michelle Terry as one half of the cross-generational love story, and Nicholas Hytner's production is swooping and energetic and, at times, very funny, if in a somewhat crude way. The play is a good example of the Monsterist tradition of which Bean is a proponent - theatre unafraid of being big in terms of scale and scope - but it falls down at a crucial hurdle in that it is never really successful in picking apart what it means to come to this country and make it your home.

Reviewed for musicOMH

I have, rightly I suspect, been called overly idealistic when I pound on about such matters, but this play though broad in scope seemed oddly narrow in its outlook. Also, both myself and my teacher friend who tagged along for the evening, felt there was something a bit predicable in focusing on Bethnal Green and its environs, the history of which I've seen documented in a fair few books in recent years. London has weathered so many shifts and changes, it would have been nice to have seen some less familiar areas explored. Ive not seen many depictions of the West London my grandparents came to, or for that matter the area of London in which I now live.

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