Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Laughing at England People Very Nice left me with a nasty taste in my mouth - Features - Theatre & Dance - The Independent

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Laughing at England People Very Nice left me with a nasty taste in my mouth

It took me days to decide what I thought of the controversial England People Very Nice at the National. My impressions shape-shifted, twisted and turned confusedly. What I might have said about the play in the first 48 hours didn't make sense on subsequent days. It was a bit like the regret and wisdom that follow the thrilling kick of a really hot curry. I wonder now about critics who scribble reviews only hours after they scurry off from press nights. Would recollection in tranquillity or time make a difference to their judgements?

The play is simple, simplistic even, though technically impressive and with a sparkling cast. Hogarth and Terry Gilliam come together and have a huge laugh, sail through the waves of different migrants who, through centuries, have arrived in Bethnal Green. The script is sharp, though some lines sound too much like stand up comic gags. Writer Richard Bean and director Nicholas Hytner have staged the romp with élan. Nothing more than that, although Hytner once claimed his production would "address the issue of Islam very vigorously" – a vain promise. There is no obvious attempt to expose what lies beneath the fast waters sweeping along, no unexpected dive below the surface.

Perhaps those involved were having too much fun to mull and muse on the effect of their work. A number of reviews approve of the un-PC bravura and verve but key critics say the work is full of malevolent caricatures, racial stereotypes and (more seriously) that it lacks humanity. Anti-racist artists and activists have been protesting and have not been mollified by a (I suspect) hastily arranged Q&A session with the writer and director.

Is the play racist? No. The BNP would not enjoy it much. White working class East End blokes are not romantic defenders of the realm – just crude thugs. Besides what does that slur say about the intelligent, multiracial cast with actors such as Rudi Dharmalingam and Sacha Dhawan? We rarely see this talent on such stages. Yet there is much I do object to in the show. Words that are now rightly excised from public discourse – "Paki" etc – are revived here with panache. Audiences laugh at the jokiness of the revival, but later some may feel they conspired with something nasty and reprehensible. I wonder why I laughed at the coarse depiction of the Irish, jolly rape scenes, sinister mullahs and a happy ending which has a bigamous Bangladeshi man smiling with his white and brown families in an English suburb.

Just because we are free to offend, doesn't make it a duty for arts establishments to make sure they do, just to raise a laugh or appear brave. Is our National Theatre rehabilitating the words so they re-enter the most polite circles of the nation? There were no jokes about the Holocaust I noticed, and a good thing too.

We are going through another cycle of anti-immigrant xenophobia, last seen in the early Seventies when Enoch Powell was a hero. The Government, pushed by some tabloids, is hard on asylum seekers and migrants and even asylum children are now seen as a menace to be deported. There can be two reasons why Hytner and Bean are baffled by the hostility they have generated. Either they share some of the prejudices they show on stage – which I simply do not believe. Or, from where they sit, they do not understand the social habitat as it is at the moment. Their play could validate hostility faced by incomers or – worse – presents that pain as a rite of passage before winning acceptance. Hytner had hoped the work would not be a "controversy magnet". England people very naive.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week