It may sound as improbable as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, but the spirit of the Bush has finally come to the National. This subsidised flagship has just opened its temporary 100-seater Loft space and it's clearly an attempt to incorporate the youth-attracting ambience of a pub theatre. Appropriately enough, it kicks off with a play that is itself set in a boozer. Given a terrible heightened timeliness by the recent successes of the Far Right in France and England and by rioting fans at Millwall, Roy Williams's play dramatises the racial tensions that reach breaking point in a South London pub where the local amateur football team, fresh from their own victory, watch England's defeat at the hands of Germany in the Wembley match in October 2000.
The production, very well directed by Simon Usher, has a tremendous testosterone-fuelled energy and boasts, in its cast of 14, one of the tightest and most natural-seeming ensembles to be found currently on the London stage. Unfolding in real time, Williams's play skilfully pegs the increasingly violent racist rancour in the bar to the sliding fortunes of the England team on the dodgy telly. But the contradictions within the characters are built up rather clunkily. For example, there are two pairs of brothers (one black, one white). The bigoted captain of the amateurs (John Marquez) and his policeman sibling (who struggles to remain fair despite having suffered violent attacks) are balanced, a touch too neatly, by their black counterparts. These are Barry (Freddie Annobil-Dodoo), a young player who leads the xenophobic chanting and sports the warpaint crosses of St George in his desire to feel assimilated, and his older brother Mark (Kolade Agboke) who has just left the army in disgust at the racism of his CO.
This careful and predictable patterning means that the play rarely catches you off-guard or shocks you into pondering your own unexamined prejudices, even when the BNP stalwart Alan (Paul Copley) is spouting his sinisterly pseudo-rational creed. But the dialogue sounds spot-on and Williams has a keen eye for the way that the pugnacious tribalisms of sport paper over some divisions, while taking a crowbar to others. Bound by realistic conventions that might make it just as good a bet on television, this is a thematically urgent, though theatrically conservative, start to the National's youth-seeking initiative.
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