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 The Theatreguide.London Review

England People Very Nice
Olivier Theatre      Spring-Summer 2009

Richard Bean's serious comedy is, for half its length, a total delight, a high-spirited and joyously non-PC romp, and for the second half is just pretty good.

The falling-off is primarily a matter of play and playwright getting more serious, and is by no means crippling, though it requires a shift in mental gears and expectations on the part of the audience to remain held by it.

Bean's subject is immigration through the ages, with the central observation that each wave of foreigners was first treated with prejudice and suspicion, only to become within a couple of generations the 'native' Britishers who would resent the next batch of newcomers.

His mode is to race through history, using a single East End neighbourhood, deliberately parodied characterisations and recurring or parallel characters to create the comic patterns. (Those parodies have caused some pointless outrage among the humour-challenged PC brigades.)

So, no sooner have the Romans left than the seventeenth-century Huguenots arrive to be greeted by a phalanx of Frog jokes, and they have barely enough time to settle in before the potato famine Irish move in, with a pig and a jig in every room.

Before they can catch their breaths, Russian Jews straight out of Fiddler on the Roof are on the scene, and Act One ends with the entrance of the first of the mid-twentieth century Indians and Pakistanis.

The speed is part of the joke, as is having the same actors appear in each group, particularly a string of star-crossed lovers who never manage to get together, while what seems like an eternal generation of local pub denizens is there to comment on each incoming wave.

Act Two brings the race through history to a slower pace, looking more closely at the experience of the current East End generation of Bangladeshi Muslims, and the various reasons - both internal and external - why they have been slower to become absorbed into Britishness and ready to resent whoever is coming next.

This half of the evening is interesting, sometimes insightful and moving, and even occasionally comic - but generally somewhat less fun than the wild and inventive romp of the first half. Quite literally, the play slows down, and the drop in energy isn't completely made up for by the greater depth.

The conceit that the whole thing is actually being performed by an international cast of asylum-seekers awaiting news in a detention camp adds yet another layer of irony and perhaps pathos to some elements of the story.

Director Nicholas Hytner keeps the first half bubbling along and guides the same actors to downshift into the deeper characterisations of the second half, though he can't completely disguise or compensate for the drop in energy. Cartoon projections by Pete Bishop add to the fun.

In the large, multi-role-playing cast Sacha Dhawan and Michelle Terry stand out as the recurring Romeo and Juliet figures, while Sophie Stanton as an eternal barmaid and Trevor Laird as many generations of doom-fearing barfly provide much of the comic backbone of the play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of England People Very Nice - National Theatre 2009
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