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­Uncomfortably funny

A satire tainted with controversy mixes difficult questions with great one-liners


Bad drama trades in stereotypes accidentally. Ambitious drama may choose to deal in them deliberately, so as to satirise the stereotypers, not the stereotyped. If you dole out the ridicule fairly, the effect can be very funny, as in Cold Comfort Farm, where every popular literary genre is sent up, and Guy Jenkin’s 1995 BBC satire A Very Open Prison, where everyone from the venal home secretary to the psychotic escapees conforms to tabloid exaggeration.

Racial prejudice is particularly suited to such satire, but is hard to pull off without upsetting people. England People Very Nice has already won a minority reputation as being not much better than ITV’s notorious Seventies sitcom Mind Your Language. The night I saw England People the author, Richard Bean, had given a platform talk during which a protester had rushed onstage shouting “racist”. It is just possible this was a set-up, part of the joke, but I wasn’t there and I wouldn’t bet on it.

The conceit is that asylum-seekers detained at Pocklington Immigration Centre are putting on a play about immigration to the West End. They are whipped into shape by their director (played by Peep Show’s wonderful Olivia Colman). She may be producing a play that dodgily affirms the power of transcultural love, but she is a perfect little dictator who even threatens a Palestinian Christian with Guantanamo if he mentions Israel one more time. The stereotyping starts at once, with a Nigerian on the phone to his wife telling her that, in his absence, she had better “beat the girl yourself”.

The play within the play is a historical pageant that takes us from the Roman conquest to the Blitz. There is plenty to offend everyone. The Huguenots are arrogant Frogs, the Italians oversexed, the Irish incestuous. Those who pass for indigenous English are kicked as hard as anyone, being extremely prone to race-riot, although they are somewhat humanised by the cockney-sparrer landlady Ida, an eternal figure in the production, presumably named after Graham Greene’s barmaid in Brighton Rock. She is actually an Irishwoman who has married a Jew – the worst combination, says Laurie, a sophisticated barfly: “You end up with a family of pissed-up burglars run by a clever accountant.”

That line gets a big laugh, but funnier ones hang in the air. A sequence on the Irish famine somehow seemed too raw for laughter and I later regretted giggling at a Spectator-reading parent who told a teacher, dressed in a niqab, that he was unwilling to take lectures on normality from “someone dressed in a two-man tent”. Fortunately, many of the jokes have theatre itself as their target. The mimes of rape in the Roman invasion sequence recall Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain and a one-eyed baby, the product of the incestuous Irish union, reminded me of a gory, clichéd Oirish oppression drama at the Tricycle last year.

The satire works less well in the second half, when the play gets bogged down in a multiracial love story between Ida’s daughter and a Bangladeshi who invents the chicken tikka masala. Romeo and Juliet is invoked, but I kept thinking of Troilus and Cressida. In this often misunderstood satire, Shakespeare left no classical turn unstoned, while creating characters who tried and failed to break free of their own comical stereotypes. In Bean’s play, Laurie makes a speech near the end: “All these different faiths, why do they wanna live separate? They’re scared. They fear the power of love, because love laughs at the manufactured, made-up madness of religion and culture.” This breakthrough of authorial viewpoint also recalls Troilus and Ulysses’s apparently unsatirical speech on observing “degree, priority and place”.

When the script’s satirical energy flags, it is usually revived by Nicholas Hytner’s spectacular direction, which brilliantly organises the huge Olivier stage and exploits the best animated projection I have seen – characters turn into cartoons before our eyes. It may be almost too much fun. Bigotry is wrong, but is there not also something rather glorious about this parade of prejudice, the purblind vigour with which “England people” make comedy out of their narrow-mindedness? Bean is now paying the price for posing this intelligent question.

“Englishmen will never eat curry. They do not have the arse for it,” the Bangladeshi restaurateur is told when he opens his joint. Multiracial Britain may not quite have the arse for England People Very Nice.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

Plague Over England
Duchess Theatre, London WC2
The critic Nicholas de Jongh on Gielgud’s secret.

Berlin Hanover Express
Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
The TV writer Ian Kennedy Martin on Irish perfidy/neutrality.

The Tempest
Richmond Theatre, Surrey
Sher as Prospero, Kani as Caliban, in this RSC co-production with Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre. From 19 March.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload