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 )
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