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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Albion
Bush Theatre  Autumn 2014

Chris Thompson's play-with-music has a timely subject and strong theme and is theatrically inventive and energetic. But it stumbles in coherence and focus, and dissipates much of its power before the ending. 

Can one be racist and xenophobic in modern urban Britain without being a violent yob? Thompson's protagonist, for at least the first half of the play, is the leader of a local London BNP-style group angry at Muslims, immigrant workers and anyone else they feel threatens their rights as native English. 

He's begun to realise that rallies that inevitably turn into riots are not helping his cause and wants, in effect, to clean up his act and bring his voice into mainstream politics. But he doesn't have the schooling, the vocabulary, the simple self-control to be able to do that, and meanwhile he's alienating his followers who are more comfortable with violence than he. 

That's an interesting dramatic situation and a not-unsympathetic hero, and it's a shame that Thompson seems to lose interest in it and him halfway through the play, shifting his attention to a disaffected social worker who has all the political savvy and social graces to rival and perhaps displace the man as a more acceptable and effective voice of the racists. 

And then the play all but drops her as well, turning to the relatively minor figure of the first man's brother, a natural follower now at a loss with no one to follow.

Each of those chapters in the play's structure is interesting and involving, but a play that can't seem to decide who it's about and who we're supposed to attach our emotions to is inevitably going to leave an audience stranded and confused. 

What does work throughout, and almost succeeds in binding the play's various strands together, is a clever employment of music. Much of the action takes place in an East End pub that has karaoke nights, and the idea that karaoke has become an urban equivalent of, say, Morris dancing as something the English feel is their own is both audacious and convincing.

Everyone in the cast takes a turn at the machine, with high-energy performances of such karaoke standards as Eye Of The Tiger, I Will Survive and Delilah not just punctuating the action but commenting on it, as when It's Raining Men serves as the ironic soundtrack to a street fight. 

That's not an original idea, of course – think of the film of Cabaret – but it's used well and is one of the strongest elements in the script and Ria Perry's production. 

Steve John Shepherd goes a long way toward making the leader a complex and sympathetic character before the play inexplicably pushes him off to the side. As the social worker Natalie Casey suffers from being so abruptly thrust into the centre in his place and has to be satisfied with sketching in her character, but she's the best singer in the cast and the source of much of the sheer theatrical energy. 

Tony Clay as the brother is conversely given too much to play while he's being a minor character – among other things, he's gay with a Muslim boyfriend – which leaves his character too undefined to take centre stage at the end. 

There's a lot of talent in Albion, and a lot of pieces that are very effective, but they don't connect or blend, and the whole is less successful than its parts.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review -  Albion - Bush Theatre 2014

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