Thursday 5 February 2015

True Brits – The Vaults

[seen 04/02/15 – in preview with permission. embargoed until after press night.]

Vinay Patel’s professional debut True Brits premièred at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe to widespread acclaim. Like an ass, I managed to miss it then, and so am enormously grateful that Tanith Lindon’s original Hightide-connected production has been revived with a new actor (David Mumeni) in the role of Rahul.

Patel has already written eloquently (and better than I could hope to) on the reasons behind “Why [he] wrote this play”, but it’s worth saying here that every rationale given in that piece is readily identifiable and well-served within the show itself.

In essence, this is a story of a British Asian young man told around two intercut time-streams: 2005 – around 6/7 and 7/7, and 2012 around the time of the Olympics. The wedding of the Olympics to the worst bombing in London since WWII, familiar already from both real life and most vividly in theatre from Simon Stephens’s Pornography. This revival is timely, if for no other reason than that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings.

What, in theory, makes True Brits such vital viewing, is that it offers a British-Asian “insider” perspective on how the actions of four British-Asians impacted on the rest of that community: a first hand account of how Britain’s usually *only-a-bit-racist* society gets that bit nastier after the bombings. Although, let’s be honest, David Hare could probably intuit and write that. Albeit without the stamp of “authenticity”. But what’s actually great about True Brits is that its protagonist would rather that the whole “Asian” thing didn’t keep interfering with his life. He’s a Blur fan from Bexleyheath – six and a half miles away from where I grew up, and indeed where I bought the 7’ of She’s So High in 1990. And the narrative is as much a “coming-of-age” tale of getting a girlfriend (with a Tory dad – occupational hazard of South East London) and working out what to do at Uni. Indeed, apart from being young than me Rahul is pretty much the most relatable fictional British character for me since Karim in the Buddha of Suburbia (also set in Bromley and London). Except they both keep on having to deal with the whole “Asian” thing, despite not necessarily being all that enthusiastic about “heritage” – and, Christ, what teenager is? It’s a fascinating tension, and one rarely properly explored on our stages. And even more rarely with such an admirable lack of histrionics or cliché.

In fact, it feels slightly like a disservice to the piece to frame in so solidly in terms of its Asian dimension; like it’ll speak most to 4.9% of the population, which simply isn’t true. Rahul is a real everyman figure (though, every*man* might be *a thing*), But, in fact, as theatre, and as a story, it almost has more narrative in common with, say, Mark O’Rowe’s 1999 Bush debut Howie The Rookie – that harrowing, unforgettable tale of a night out gone horribly wrong. Except, while True Brits does have one sequence which is properly, stomach-churningly hard to listen to, it is always aiming for a positive, upbeat outcome.

In terms of the production, it is played on a near-empty stage – there are a couple of, what? upturned crates to occasionally sit on, and white “wing-space” flats, which are more likely part of the venue. The lights are general washes of yellow or pink or blue. There is some sound, mostly skillfully dropped into the background as crowd, or music – much of it indistinguishable from the sound-bleed in the multi-space Vault space itself, with its rumbling overhead trains and tunnel-like rooms. (Which suit the 7/7 aspects all too well.) Mumeni is a likeable, charming, convincing stage presence.

The central event of the piece, which we only discover late in the day, makes for a fascinating statement about where Rahul is at as an 18-year-old, and the contrast with his older, wiser, happier self in 2012 is a kindness to the audience.

What is sadder, perhaps, is remembering the hope-filled atmosphere of Britain in 2012 around the Olympics and then stepping out into the freezing February of 2015, which is almost laughably, symbolically bleak by contrast. To note that in three years the Conservative coalition has not simply squandered but actively reversed all the Olympic good will – achieved, lest we forget, in unity at their expense – is too simple. But to keep remembering that it was even possible only three short years ago is crucial.

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