The National Theatre, under its artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, is one of the cultural glories of the great city of London and the Olivier the only theatrical venue in the West End in which you’re likely to see contemporary plays conceived on an epic scale.
It would be heartening to report that Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice was as successful as it is ambitious, but despite its many qualities and its sheer breadth of scale, it’s not the triumph it might have been.
A play-within-a play, it involves a group of muti-racial asylum seekers and would be immigrants in anxious limbo as they await to be informed by letter who will be granted work permits and who will be sent back to their countries of origin. To pass the time, they decide to put on a play of their own about immigrants, integration, and multiculturalism over the last four hundred years.
It begins with the arrival of the persecuted Huguenots, followed by the Irish who are seeking refuge from famine, continues with the arrival of the Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms, and comes right up to date with the influx of Bengalis and Pakistanis.
They all fetch up in London’s East End, become Cockneys, inter-marry and attempt to assimilate into the British way of life while, at the same time, trying to maintain their ethnic identities as they contend with racialism and violence in their fight for acceptance.
It’s a massive canvas to say the least, and the problems inherent in making multiculturalism work in today’s hate infested society, are only superficially addressed.
But how could it be otherwise? As it is, the play is three hours long and, because Bean’s message emerges very early on, hard-core content gives way to a series of episodic incidents, all of them saying similar things and culminating with the serious problem provided by today’s Muslim fundamentalists, many of whom rejoiced in the catastrophe of 9/11 and continue to preach terrorism.
Bean’s approach to his subject is very much a comic-book one, and, benefiting from Pete Bishop’s Pythonesque animations, encapsulates some of the more colourful events that occurred between the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 to 2008 when London’s Bangladeshi population rose to 150,000.
The origins of Chicken Tikka Massala in London to the invention of the ballpoint pen by Laszlo Biro in 1938 and the Bethnal Green tube tragedy in 1943 when 173 people were crushed to death as they entered the station’s bomb shelter, are treated as sketches in some vast historic cavalcade, while the recurring characters are, in the main, racial caricatures. A rather feeble Jewish song, for example, is called Oy vey.
Fortunately, political correctness is never an issue, and despite the abundance of laughs with which Bean has crammed his text – there is no question that there will be audiences who be offended by the bad language and the stereotypes. Others with a less squeamish disposition will celebrate its exuberant roller-coaster approach to history and find much to enjoy in it. As I did.
What both camps will agree, however, is the energy and pace of Hytner’s life-affirming direction, the inventive use of the vast Olivier stage, the aforementioned animation, and some engaging performances by a large cast, most notably Sophie Stanton as a Spittalfields barmaid and Sacha Dhawan and Michelle Terry as the on-going love-interest.
England People Very Nice is far from perfection – but it’s just the sort of play the National should be doing.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.