A play about far right politics, told through the medium of karaoke?
Yep, really. This new work is the second from emerging playwright Chris Thompson, who has woven his experiences as a social worker into this tract on English nationalism and the rise of the far right in modern Britain. He's added levity by making it into an almost-musical, with popular, toe-tapping tunes sandwiched between spurts of dialogue; it works to alleviate potential boredom but waters down the play's overall message.
The show is set in the Albion pub, with the audience sat around a thrust stage with the lights up; exposed and becoming uncomfortably tacit members of the in-house activities, which vary from spirited karaoke evenings to organised racist conventions.
The pub landlord, Paul (Steve John Shepherd, scary and sympathetic in turns) uses the pub as the meeting place for his 'anti-Islamic' extremist organisation, the English Protection Army, while his brother, Jayson runs the music side because he 'f**king loves' karaoke. Jayson also, strangely for an EPA member, has an Asian boyfriend, Aashir (Dharmesh Patel; camp and cute). How this is compatible with Jayson's views isn't really explained, but some of the most charming scenes come from the tenderness and tension between the two characters.
There's also Paul and Jayson's sister, Poppy, who is killed while serving in the Army, her partner Kyle, the token black member of the EPA, and Christine, the social worker who is sacked for neglect.
Christine agrees to help Paul to shake off the EPA's thuggish image and make his message more palatable. She's played by Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps actor Natalie Casey, who's got a cracking singing voice and spot-on comic timing; her powerful rendition of "I Will Survive" is belted out with a hilariously grim expression and she plays businesslike Christine with the suppressed calm, needling persuasion and chillingly fake smile of a sociopath. Hopefully, like her former co-star Sheridan Smith, we'll be seeing more of her on stage in the future.
It's rare to see a production that looks at such a spectrum of views all on the far right and it's a mark of the strong writing that all the characters have moments of pathos. The most convincing is Christine's story; her managers were so afraid to appear racist they allowed two Asian men in their organisation to abuse a girl, Leanne, who was in their care. "We were racist, Paul," she says tearfully, "we were racist against those white girls."
But with so many characters and karaoke tracks to crowbar in, the play loses momentum and at two hours plus a 20 minute interval, it's too long. However, with some tightening up (we don't need to see Poppy and Leanne in the flesh), and by cutting some of the tunes, this state-of-the-nation play could really make us reconsider how we deal with the growing popularity of the far right. It's easy to dismiss racist views without bothering to engage with them, but this work makes the argument that ignoring them is no longer an option.
September 12 - October 25; 020 8743 5050