Saturday, 7 March 2009

England People Very Racist?

I try to avoid reading reviews of things before I have had the chance to make up my own mind. I’m far too contrarian and end up spending far too much time trying to see things differently to the critics.

It was impossible to avoid the charges of cartoon caricatures, racist stereotypes and malevolent wisecracking levelled at Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, currently showing at the National Theatre, however. Commentators ranging from shadow children’s secretary Michael Gove to East End playwright Hussain Ismail were lining up to diss it. Gove called it ‘dramatically appalling ... It made Alf Garnett seem sophisticated.’ Hussein called it ‘racist and offensive ... I went to the first night ... All I could see was a sea of people laughing at immigrants.’ Even theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh, no PC stalwart he, accused it of ‘defaming refugees’ and ‘[fanning] the ever ready flames of prejudice.

So I went prepared to don my contrarian hat but with more than a sniff of disquiet about my person as the audience laughed its way through a sequence of comedy routines dealing with successive waves of immigrants – French Huguenots, Irish, Jews, the occasional Afro-Caribbean and Bangladeshis – to Bethnal Green, in London’s East End. Each wave was shown to resent the next; and each ethnic group was the target of the sort of humour that does indeed depend on a high degree of racial and cultural stereotyping.

Was it funny? Most of the audience – and I – certainly thought so. And I don’t think it was only in what Nicholas de Jongh called ‘the slick, cruel, abusive style that Bernard Manning perfected ages ago’. Context is everything, though, and it helps to have some Irish blood coursing through your veins if you find yourself laughing out loud at the Irish’s purported penchant for keeping a pig as part of the family, inter-marrying with your cousins and breeding one-eyed babies as a consequence. ‘Mother always told us not to go with strangers.’ I’m not sure I would have wanted to be laughing at that one if my Irish companion hadn’t been pissing herself already.

I found the treatment of the last great wave of immigrants, Bethnal Green’s Muslim community, more difficult to laugh along with. There seemed to be an undertow that was saying that every other group of refugees has ended up integrating and becoming as indigenous as the English, but that this one was different. The BNP character in the play says to an Afro-Caribbean: ‘It’s not about race any more, it’s about culture.’ The Afro-Caribbean ends up packing his suitcase and heading off ‘home’ to Barbados.

My companion and I argued the toss about the play for at least an hour afterwards. We both agreed that the group to come out worst from it was the white working class, whose primary recurring role throughout this portrayal of 400 years of East End history was that of murderous, racist thugs. That’s an unfair caricature – and it wasn’t very funny.