England People Very Nice, Olivier, National Theatre London
Far too childish to be very nice
Tuesday 17 February 2009
You can imagine all sorts of other plays while watching Richard Bean's comic strip of national stereotypes at the National: a history of racial hooliganism, perhaps, or of housing policy for immigrants, or indeed the changing personnel and manners of social intercourse in the Bethnal Green pub where Bean keeps his choric foul-mouthed East Enders.
In the end, his panoramic quasi-Brechtian epic is both child-like and childish, exploiting superficial characteristics of Irish, Jews and Asians in the wider cause of asserting that all new arrivals are resented by their immediate predecessors. Nicholas Hytner's lively, often disgracefully enjoyable production conspires in this purpose to an alarming degree.
The simplicity of it all can be justified by the framework device: the show is a sort of amateur pageant put together by a crowd of Eastern European and Third World asylum seekers at an immigration centre in Pocklington. With house lights up, the director (Olivia Colman) issues brisk instructions and we suddenly hurtle through the Romans, Saxons, Danes and Celts to the Huguenots and the focal point of a Bethnal Green tavern.
Here we pause while the list of outsider characters played by the resourceful and sympathetic Sacha Dhawan embarks on his list of love affairs with the archetypal accommodating nymphet down the years played by the delightful Michelle Terry. The process of assimilation is reduced or distilled (depending on your view of such things) to one of sexual convenience.
Dhawan's a Norfolk labourer, an Italian priest in the Irish community, an Israeli typesetter who invents the biro (and re-writes history with it) and a Bangladeshi West Ham supporter, Mushi, who makes another key cultural contribution – the chicken tikka masala – and is horrified to hear about the disaster of the Twin Towers: "Oh no, oh my God, not Wembley!"
Mark Thompson's design is plastered with video projections and deliberately naive animated cartoons, until we come brutally up to date with Muslim hooligans in Brick Lane, middle-class liberals embracing the "desirability" of the East End and Mushi falling foul of the blind, hook-handed imam who demands a baby for the fundamentalist cause.
The show mistakenly supposes that Redbridge, a place that doesn't really exist, is some sort of ideal paradise. But reality is foreign to this oddly disjointed but always enjoyable evening which has too many stupid lines – "Only a liberal blames himself when he gets mugged" – to be entirely convincing about what it set out to achieve.
To 30 April (020-7452 3000 www.nationaltheatre.org.uk )
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 PlayStation and Xbox hacked by Lizard Squad
- 2 Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'
- 3 The Grace Dent Christmas Questionnaire
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
EastEnders Christmas special, review: Brilliant Danny Dyer glues you to your seat
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader