Review – England People Very Nice, National Theatre

Sunday 15 February 2009


Fu**ing Frogs!!!


Fu**ing Micks!!!

Fu**ing Whingers!!!

Mmmm, wasn’t fu**ing funny the first time, was it?

Did the repetition help make it funnier?

Well, if it did you might have died laughing by the end of England People Very Nice at the National Theatre on Tuesday evening.

Yes, Tuesday. And today is Sunday. What’s that all about? Not like the Whingers to sit on something for so long.

Well, it’s a combination of things. There is something about Richard Bean‘s “funny and provocative new play” which has sapped the very spirit from the Whingers’ souls.

For on Tuesday night they reached the point where they seriously began to doubt their critical faculties. Whichever way they looked at it, this “funny and provocative new play” seemed to be simply unfunny and offensive. The only possible explanation was that this “funny and provocative new play” had gone completely over the Whingers’ heads, as often happens.

But usually in those circumstances they usually at least catch a glimpse of something flying over their heads even if they can’t quite glimpse it or name it. But on Tuesday night….

Anyway Richard Bean’s funny and provocative new play is apparently “a riotous journey through four waves of immigration from the 17th century to today”:

As the French Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews and the Bangladeshis in turn enter the chaotic world of Bethnal Green, each new influx provokes a surge of violent protest over housing, jobs, religion and culture. And the emerging pattern shows that white flight and anxiety over integration is anything but new.

Written with scurrilous bravura, Richard Bean’s great sweep of a comedy follows a pair of star-crossed lovers amid cutters’ mobs, Papists, Jewish anarchists and radical Islamists across four tempestuous centuries.

Despite the yawn-inducing decision to use the cultural palimpsest of the East End yet again as the canvas on which to tell a story about successive waves of immigrants, the Whingers were quite up for this.

Indeed, Phil was quite looking forward to England People Very Nice as he is rather proud of his Huguenot descent (who in the 1680s could have foreseen that the Huguenots would descend quite so far?). Andrew – who is adamant that Phil is old enough to be one of the original Huguenot immigrants – likes to affect that he can’t understand Phil’s Gallic tones, especially when it’s his round.

Anyway, if you are anything like the Whingers you will hate being told when something is riotous, hilarious or brilliantly witty. It makes your hackles rise. It makes you want to cross your legs, fold your arms, turn down the corners of your mouth and tell your nasal labial folds to take the evening off.

EPVN is certainly a romp, Think Carry On without the nuanced subtleties, think Till Death Us Do Part, think Spike Milligan playing an Asian immigrant in Curry and Chips. Think more corn than a slovenly chiropodist’s floor.

Throw in a huge multi-cultural cast newly graduated from the school of coarse acting, heavy-handed, more-hit-than-miss gags that mimic deliberately un-PC (i.e. racist) language, Terry Gilliam inspired animations, language that would make even Mickey Rourke blush, an on stage band, László Bíró (inventor of the ballpoint pen) and set it in a immigration holding centre, then get Nicholas Hytner to stir it on a very low-brow light for just under three hours until it is indecently over-cooked.

You can see Mr Bean’s point, there’s always been immigration in England, there has always been prejudice, there has always been, ignorance, suspicion and a new culture to have a go at. The scenes set in Spitalfields where the weaving industry feel threatened by French workers and their innovation has uncanny prescience with recent industrial problems over Italian workers. But who was he lecturing about all this and why?

In what way was this use of racist language and racial stereotypes clever? And, by the way, wasn’t he inventing new ones along the way? Phil and Andrew had never thought of the Irish as incestuous pig lovers but they will from now on.

The Whingers cracked an occasional smile as the panto dragged on, Andrew wore his signature expression of benign submission, Helen sat po-faced and Liz was so distractingly anxious to look at Phil’s watch every 10 minutes that eventually to get some peace he turned back his cuff and positioned his wrist so the dial was clearly visible.

And on it went. Even a demonstration where worshippers at a Brick Lane synagogue are pelted with bacon sandwiches (based on a true incident, apparently) failed to inspire Phil to get back on track with his food-on-stage thesis. And while we’re being pernickity, was sliced white bread available in 1904? Phil believes there was still another 24 years to go.

By the time the interval arrived the Whingers and their party knew exactly where EPVN was heading and they also knew where they were heading too. There hadn’t been such an instantaneous interval decision since Fram. With a spectacular display of their own hostility and intolerance they performed their own migration to a much better world, their own promised land – the bar – where they lived happily ever after until closing time.

7 Responses to “Review – England People Very Nice, National Theatre”

  1. It’s a shame we didnt see the same play because I loved it when I saw the preview on the 5th. Would your review of the play change had you stayed after the interval, maybe not.

  2. nina Says:

    Not in my case having seen it on the 4th. I coped with Act One so stayed after the interval and hated Act Two. All that I did find quite broad-brush populist history but reasonably engaging in the first act became heavy-handed and deeply patronising in the second until the mystifying closure when I didn’t understand which of the asylum-seekers got to stay and why.

  3. Caroline Says:

    I went to a preview on the 5th and didn’t even last until the interval. Others seemed to be enjoying it but I found it so cartoon-like, superficial and unengaging that I crept out after 30 minutes. (Luckily I had an aisle seat in the circle so it was a discreet departure.) I used to love Richard Bean’s plays but perhaps “The English Game” should have warned me that a change was afoot and not for the better…

  4. JohnnyFox Says:

    It was the National Theatre’s desperate prose that sapped my vitality for this piece and I still can’t bring myself, even for a £10 Travelex ticket, to face it.

    Although there’s got to be a good joke that starts ‘A Huguenot, and Irishman, a Bengali and a Jew walk in to a bar ..’

  5. Eve Says:

    I loved it.

    From the above I was going to say that it looks like you had all made your minds up not to enjoy it before you went in, but as I only read the first half of your review I won’t.

  6. Sean Says:

    I would have happily walked during the interval, but the friend I was with wanted to see Act II. It was probably one of the most uncomfortable evenings at the theatre I’ve endured – at least Maddie was so appalling it became funny. I didn’t hate it, but it made me feel slightly on edge. However, any theatre that generates such polarised debate should be a good thing.

  7. Cosmic Butterfly Says:

    Dear Whingers,
    I thought the main body of the play was both witty & provocative in the fine tradition of the Restoration Comedies (although the sub plot in the asylum centre was unecessary). I laughed merrily and thoroughly enjoyed it…then again I thought ‘Fram’ was one of the most inovative & impressive pieces of new theatre in years (and I speak as one who has frequented the National for the past 30 of them).

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