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A CurtainUp London London Review
England People Very Nice

Good morning, I been here thirty years. I fought Hitler! This is my current wife, full British passport. I invented Chicken Tikka Masala, now British staple diet. How much cash for me to buggeroff!?— Mushi
England People Very Nice
The Cast as the Irish in Bethnal Green
(Photo: Johan Persson)
The delightful Richard Bean’s latest play which gets star billing at the National Theatre has been much misunderstood. Already protests from immigrant groups are mounting which look to rival the Christian reaction to Jerry Springer the Opera. England People Very Nice is a political satire which looks at immigration into London’s East End from the French Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields in the seventeenth century to the newly arriving Somalian population today, encompassing along the way, Irish, Eastern European Jewish and Bangladeshi arrivals.

Bean’s vicious but excruciatingly funny stereotypes have offended many, but that is the point to make people realize that stereotypes are damaging and not true but born out of prejudice. Everyone is lampooned and a rif from a black actor repeats the famous “Rivers of Blood” phrase across the centuries. Enoch Powell was a1960s Conservative politician and Oxford classicist who predicted that the arrival of the population from the Commonwealth would create racial violence in the UK. The highly controversial "Rivers of blood" speech was made in 1968 and it is comforting forty years later to note that the Thames is the same old brown colour. Bean’s point by having this phrase said first in the seventeenth century and repeated in each successive century is that the fear then was unfounded but it is a description of a gut reaction to alien cultures.

The play is a play within a play. The device is that this play has been written and will be acted by a group of people in an Immigration Centre waiting to hear if the Home Office has granted them leave to remain in the UK. Within this framework, there is another as Ida the barmaid and her boss the landlord Laurie comment on each successive demographic, their public house being a fixture next to the Protestant Church which becomes a Synagogue and later a Mosque. Ida has only one adjective, we are later told that it is not an adjective but in her case punctuation, and she uses the derogatory term for the incomers, so the Frenchmen are "Fucking Frogs", the Irish "Fucking Micks" and so on. There is prejudice shown by each newly established group to the new arrivals, so the Protestant French, now Londoners with Cockney accents are deeply suspicious of the Catholic Irish and complain that their homes are being taken. .

Artistic Director of the National Nicholas Hytner has chosen to direct Bean’s play himself. Cartoons and video footage of marching skinheads are projected onto the rough wooden set as one of those awaiting news of his visa in the Immigration Centre is a talented animation artist. There are songs and dances with each set of immigrants and plenty of rap for today’s generation.

Each century sees a love affair between a girl (Michelle Terry) and a man from another religious or national group (Sacha Dhawan) and these "cross cultural romances" serve to emphasize what people have in common not what sets them apart. The ensemble performances are magnificent, with all except Sophie Stanton as Ida and Fred Ridgeway as Laurie taking on many roles. Elliot Levey for instance has six parts from Lord George Gordon to a milkman.

Bean’s play is not for those worried about being politically correct although his message is tolerance and that England is ultimately a nation of immigrants. Bean isn’t afraid of controversy, in fact I might say he searches it out with his double hook handed extremist Islamist cleric, but it is because he thinks as a playwright he should tackle subjects others shy away from. My comment is that on a matinee showing at the National there was a mutter of agreement from elderly patrons who sympathized with the feeling of resentment by the home community seeing public housing allocations made to newcomers with greater need. Sadly I think they did not hear the larger message but had their prejudices reinforced.

England People Very Nice
Written by Richard Bean
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

With: Philip Arditti, Jamie Beamish, Paul Chequer, Olivia Colman, Rudi Dharmalingam, Sacha Dhawan, Hasina Haque, Tony Jaywardena, Trevor Laird, Elliot Levey, Siobhan McSweeney, Neet Mohan, Aaron Neil, Sophia Nomvete, Daniel Poyser, Claire Prempeh, Fred Risgeway, Avin Shah, Sophie Stanton, Michelle Terry, David Verrey, Harvey Virdi
Design: Mark Thompson
Animation: Pete Bishop
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: John Leonard
Music: Grant Olding
Choreographer: Scarlet Mackmin
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 30th April 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th February 2009 performance at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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