Having had a whirlwind of publicity whipped up around it through accusations of heavy-handed racism, I was mildly disappointed to not be accosted by any protestors upon entering the auditorium for England People Very Nice, Richard Bean’s new play at the National Theatre. I was less surprised to find that I enjoyed the piece very much, and found largely most amusing, and not at all “racist”.
The play is set up as being performed by a group of asylum seekers awaiting the results of their appeals for residency, and tells the story of wave after wave of immigration of different ethnic groups into Bethnal Green throughout the last few centuries. So we see the French Huguenots arrive and face resistance to their arrival on a number of levels: on culture, on religion, and more materially on housing and on jobs, but yet also finding time for love. Time passes by and as a new wave of immigrants arrive, this time the Irish, so the French find themselves guilty of the same attitudes that were held against them upon their arrival.
The cycle repeats itself with the subsequent arrival of Jews, and finally Bangladeshis. All of this is also witnessed by the native English, three of whom are wittily played in a bar scene which repeats each time, always beginning with the exclamation “F***ing Frogs”, “F***ing Micks” et al. The second half takes a darker, much less comic turn, as it focuses on the rise of militant Islamism within this community in modern times, and so the pace drops quite significantly and whilst it doesn’t drag, I did miss the speed of the first half.
The first half plays heavily on stereotypes, and if one were being hyper-sensitive then I suppose that this simplistic stereotyping could be considered offensive. But to do so seems to miss the point that I think the play is making, namely that these perceived ideas of ‘difference’ are deep down just meaningless, and instead of the tacit acceptance of finding them “very nice”, there should be no barrier to confronting that which one has issues with, no matter how sensitive society may deem it to be.
As part of the Travelex £10 season, I very much enjoyed seeing something that made me think a little bit differently, and yet still only cost a tenner for seats in the third row of the stalls.