25/3/09, National (Olivier).
Blogspot lost my first version of this review so, in brief...
Controversial Richard Bean play, directed by Nick Hytner, about immigration. A sprawling play-within-a-play: inmates at an immigration centre put on a devised play about the successive waves of migrants who have arrived in Spitalfields/Brick Lane since the Huguenots. Could teach the Convicts' Opera a thing or two about use of framing: done with a light touch, at the start and finish (and briefly immediately before and after the interval), plus some jokes in the play itself which have been set up in the prologue and so are welcomed as old friends by the audience.
Very funny, though much of the humour comes from shameless use of stereotypes. The Huguenots are all frightfully elegant; the Irish keep pigs in their rooms and breed with their siblings; the Jews are all revolutionary socialists and anarchists; the Bangladeshis invent chicken tikka masala.
Dramatic tension flagged towards the end of the first act, in the Jewish section, when posh Ruth (whose daddy owns the docks) foments working class revolution; and there was a frisson towards the end when today's Islamic extremists are mocked (in the shape of a radical girl who speaks in rhyming rap and a mad mullah with two hooks for hands). That seemed harder to take than the earlier sections. Is that because it's always difficult to see today's bogeymen as ultimately harmless, as it is possible to see their predecessors? Or because unlike previous waves of immigrants -- who within a generation or two are seen to have melded with the existing inhabitants and become thorough-going cockneys, suspicious in their turn of the next wave of new arrivals -- this lot seem less willing to reach an accommodation with their host society?
There are lots of running gags. A barmaid (Sophie Stanton, who starts each section with an explosive "fackin' Irish..." or whatever), a pub landlord (Fred Ridgeway, who fills in the barmaid's "wossnames" with erudite glosses) and a customer (Trevor Laird, "I got them Jews upstairs from me...") who comment chorus-like on proceedings. A young couple (Sacha Dhawan and Michelle Terry) who embark on doomed Romeo & Juliet style romances between incomer and existing inhabitant. A thug, Hugo, who knifes one of the newcomers. Etc etc.
Simple set, designed by Mark Thompson: a blank wall full of doors and windows, one section of which moves forward to form the bar. Great use of animations (by Pete Bishop) projected onto the wall, which sketch in historical developments. Music from a live four-piece who double as immigration centre warders in the first scene.