The National Theatre is billing England People Very Nice, the first show of 2009 to offer Travelex £10 tickets, as playwright Richard Bean’s state-of-the-nation play. Well, according to Bean, the state of the nation is the same as always: reactionary and xenophobic.
Covering four waves of immigration – French Huguenots, Irish, Jews and Bangladeshis – Bean points a flashing neon finger the size of
the Olivier Theatre at our national tendency towards intolerance.
The play does a great job putting the problems of today’s multicultural London in perpsective, as each generation of immigrants eventually integrates into British life and then takes its turn oppressing the next. It’s enough to make anyone wonder why we’re still considered a go-to nation for anyone fleeing persecution and adversity.
Yet Bean somehow houses this damning admonishment in an epic, centuries-spanning romantic comedy, throughout which the successive reincarnations of a pair of lovers try again and again to love one another despite cultural divides and running gags. And as if that plot weren’t enough, it is itself embedded in a fairly iffy piece of metatheatre.
The immigrants in the detention centre in 2009, you see, have devised the centuries-spanning romantic comedy while waiting on their applications for leave to remain. At its best, this framing device salts the open wound of British hypocrisy: citizenship exams, testing the loyalty of potential immigrants to the nation that banged them up as soon as they arrived? Such exquisite irony. So quintessentially British.
But the cynic in me can’t help seeing the play-within-a-play as a Get Out Of Jail Free card Bean dealt to himself under the table, allowing him to neatly sidestep criticism with the excuse, “that’s how the characters would have devised it.” And at its worst, the device is a megaphone through which Bean can announce (in case we’re a little slow on the uptake) that it doesn’t matter if a character lives through the Blitz and still looks twenty-five in 2009, because that’s the magic of theatre.
The comedy does work. It tempers the worthier observations and keeps the play from turning into art as social work for the nation. So does the star-cross’d romance. After all, the truest measure of a country’s receptiveness to new cultures is the rate of intermarriage. But I don’t need Olivia Colman’s immigration officer Philippa to face front and tell me so before I can appreciate the point.
Bean could do with worrying a little less about whether people will pick up on his meaning. It’s clear enough without all the highlighting, and in overclarifying himself, he runs the risk of closing down alternative interpretations, yanking the subtext into the foreground and robbing the play of depth.