[Written for CultureWars.org.uk]
Richard Bean’s new play in the National’s Olivier Theatre is a very long, Epic-theatre comedy about racism. It kicks off in a detention centre where a disparate group of asylum seekers are putting on a devised piece about how England, specifically Bethnal Green, has welcomed successive waves of immigrants throughout its history. It is purportedly their play – albeit performed with the framing device removed – which forms vast majority of the show. Think Forty Years On meets Oh, What a Lovely War via Love Thy Neighbour and ‘Allo ‘Allo and you’ll be on the right tracks.
After a quick vignette to deal with the first millennia or so of British history, the piece starts in earnest with the arrival of French Huguenots – thrown out of their own country by the Catholics. They are followed a couple of hundred years/twenty minutes later by the rural Irish Catholics escaping the potato famine. They are followed by Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms.
Bean quickly sets up a kind of repeating pattern, the way that the French are initially received with dismay and alarm which escalates to ugly violence before they gradually become more and more integrated into the community, building churches and houses, marrying into the indigenous community and finally adopting English accents when the British go to war with France. When the Irish turn up, we see them express their outrage at these new immigrants. Similarly, when the Russian Jews arrive, the locals are once again initially resistant and prominent British Jews – wealthy conservatives like Rothschild – despairing of Russian Jewish anarchists. Having dealt with three hundred or so years in the first half, the second half offers a more detailed trot through to the present day, looking at Indian “lascar” seamen from the Merchant Navy and the growth of the Bangladeshi community around Spitalfields.
To maintain a bit of narrative drive beyond a simple historical sketch comedy, Bean centres much of the action around a pub with a kind of eternal landlady (Sophie Stanton – whose cries of “Facking Frogs!”, “Facking Micks!”, “Facking Yids!” herald the arrival of each new group) and her perky daughter (Michelle Terry), who at each point in history falls into bed with one of the immigrants – always played by Sacha Dhawan – in an ongoing romance through time.
Nick Hytner’s staging is characteristically assured, although given the huge rambling, rambunctious feel of the piece, his tendency toward polish has perhaps over-smoothed here, making it feel like a very West End take on rough theatre. The performances are strong, with a large multi-ethnic cast playing every wave of immigrants and the “indigenous” population, thus we have Elliot Levy playing a Palestinian Christian, black actors playing members of the National Front, and Asian actors playing Russian Jews.
The script is essentially a tissue of racial epithets combined with some broad, stereotypical portrayals of the various groups of minorities. It’s pretty robust stuff, but is presented in such a way that makes it feel silly to take offence. This is, after all, as multi-ethnic a cast as you could wish for all mucking about and doing silly accents together in front of a similarly mixed audience. On the other hand, the play’s Brechtian scope and structure – a kind of Mother Courage and The Other – suggest that we are watching something designed to illustrate a point. This underlying message possibly requires a bit more unpacking, however.
The way that the plot unfolds, with its focus on love being the answer to all society’s ills, seems to back up the claim made by various characters that immigrant communities are finally accepted and part of English society when they have started intermarrying – until then, by implication, they are aliens. Another, more depressing, reading is available which suggests that immigrants are finally integrated into English society when they are racist about the next wave of immigrants. Bean doesn’t have a lot of time for the conflicting claims of various world religions. Repeatedly espoused is the maxim “The only heaven you’ll ever have is here.” (Answered with the oft-repeated running gag, “What, Bethnal Green?”)
It is interesting that Bean doesn’t really reflect on the qualitative differences between white Christian immigrants from foreign countries and those between different world religions – more traditional wings of which favour marrying within their faith – and immigrants with different skin colours. The play doesn’t seem to have much time for multi-culturalism, in the sense of separate communities maintaining their own ways of life and not joining in with the more general mongrel melting pot that constitutes the “English”. It reads mostly as an argument for integration – the briskly improvised invention of the Chicken Tikka Masala can be seen as an example of this process at its best, with both sides adapting and benefiting from cultural exchange.
It is interesting to note the somewhat uneven treatment of the various immigrant cultures. The French are dispatched quickly as stock stereotypes. The Irish contingent are shown indulging in every behaviour of which they stand accused by the bigots – pigs under the arm, green suits, alcoholism, wife beating and incest – up to the point where a one-eyed baby is born out of incestuous union. The portrayal of the Jews is warm and affectionate, as is the portrayal of the Indian “lascars”. Less sympathetic and affectionate is the portrayal of Brick Lane’s current Bangladeshi community. The older generation is depicted as likeable enough, but the youths turn from violent, confrontational drug-dealers and muggers to becoming radicalised Islamists in the wake of 9/11.
Sadly, this is as far as history has got, and Bean does not indulge in clairvoyance. It is interesting that at the close of the play, the eternal pub landlady, her Irish/Jewish daughter and the daughter’s Muslim lover – with his extended family in tow – decide to decamp from Bethnal Green to Redbridge (a running joke throughout).
As such, the end of the play feels half like an apocalyptic warning: Run! This time it’s different! The Islamists are coming to get us! – And half like a case being well rested: If we learn from the lessons of history, we can see that we have absolutely nothing to worry about. From what has gone before, it does seem as if Bean’s outlook is pessimistic. That Islamic Fundamentalism is somehow more threatening than Irish Catholicism, French Protestantism or Russian Jewish Anarchism. Indeed, he breaks his falling-in-love structure to demonstrate the point. Radical Islamists, he suggests, cannot fall in love with a non-Muslim. I’m sure a Radical Islamist would agree, but it seems a shame that Bean allows their propaganda to derail his rather sweet thesis that integration is not only possible but also inevitable.
As plays go, it’s moderately entertaining – hugely so, if you’re a fan of crude humour – although its three-hour length outstays its welcome. It’s got a lot of jokes, mostly of the broad variety – swearing plays a key role here. There are some sweet sentimental moments – a misty eyed cockerney knees-up in the pub during WWII is unashamed rose-tinted nostalgia – but overall the noisy humour and the cavalcade of racist characters and mob violence makes for a strangely dispiriting evening.
Photographs by Johan Persson - left to right: SACHA DHAWAN (Mushi), PAUL CHEQUER (Hugo), MICHELLE TERRY (Deborah)