Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
18 April 2009 (Mat)
A great portrayal of human Bean's!
Some people think that Richard Bean’s ‘England People Very Nice’ is racist. Well, in that case they have really missed the point. Just because a play shows racist behaviour doesn’t mean it’s a racist play. What Bean is doing is showing us this behaviour to highlight exactly what it is and that while it’s wrong, how it can come about so easily. But it’s also an extremely funny play and by making us laugh, making us realise that we are laughing at some uncomfortable stuff and by making us question ourselves, he is drumming a point home far more effectively than making a worthy speech. In other words, it’s classic satire!
In showing us the past 400 years of people’s reactions to incomers, he shows us that there have always been racist reactions and sadly, we also see that this will probably always be the case. It’s not about skin colour though, it’s about reacting to different cultures, and how all cultures have been intolerant to each other. In short, those who are already in a place will resent the arrival of new people who seem to be given everything they need.
From the arrival of the French in England to the Irish, to the Jews and finally through to Bangladeshis, the new culture that arrives is resented by the old guard. But what also really comes across is that as time goes on, the so called English people are made up of all the cultures that have arrived in the country and begs the question what is an English person anyway?
The one thing that also came across about why new people are resented is that they are all perceived to be getting something that the people who are already in the country aren’t getting, be it jobs or housing. The Protestants are uneasy about the Irish Catholics, who, in turn, are hostile to the Jews, who feel displaced by the Bangladeshis. Then finally, it’s suggested that they are angry about seemingly preferential treatment being given to Somalis.
The irony is that this is kind of a play within a play because it’s being put on by “inmates” in an immigration centre”. They have arrived in this country and certainly none of them are getting an easy ride – they are in prison.
The device used to show how things don’t change is clever. In the first half the same actors play the central characters in each section. Then in the second half, the same actors play the same characters over a period of about 60 years – without seemingly ageing. It shows that people’s reactions are exactly the same and that some things never change. But what Bean also shows is that in every case, love transcends the racial divide.
Nicholas Hytner’s production is fast-paced and helped by animations by Pete Bishop which move the story along. And though they were from the same kind of school, I enjoyed these much more than I ever did Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python stuff which frankly I found a bit scary!
It’s massive cast, by modern standards, but I’d pick out a few for a special mention - Sacha Dhawan and Michelle Terry as the star-crossed lovers in every phase, Sophie Stanton as a wonderfully brassy barmaid and Fred Ridgeway as a wise old publican.
The jokes are plentiful but it all makes a serious point. You become more and more aware of an Englishman being Daniel Defoe’s “heterogeneous thing”, essentially mongrels, and it is integration that encourages tolerance. As a result, there’s also an implied suggestion that it’s the unwillingness of some communities to integrate that causes dangerous problems, and it is this that is the most chilling message. This is probably where the racist allegations come from. I didn’t see it like that at all but all art is subjective.
There has, and sadly probably always will be racism and intolerance, and because of this there will also always be a heated debate about multicultural Britain. Richard Bean’s play is a timely – and maybe even timeless – contribution to that discussion.