With the General Election today being another attempt to sort out the mess that British politics has become it was completely apposite that last night I attended a play which gave some insight into how we got where we are. The word “Brexit” was never so much as mentioned and yet it permeated the play’s structure as the piece attempted to show how divided we have become as a nation and how intolerant we are of any point of view that fails to conform to our own. This even spilled out into the audience as vocal minorities made their feelings known and by doing so demonstrated their own prejudices. Here’s my review:
A state of the nation play? On the eve of the general election? How timely! And “A Kind Of People” by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti at the Royal Court provocatively exposes a nation which is in an absolute state…of chaos as racism, classism, sexism and other number of issues are forensically examined and we are all found wanting. So, this is a very timely play but is it a good one?
Everything begins cheerily enough with a birthday party at central couple Gary (Richie Campbell) and Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell)’s flat for Mark (Thomas Coombes), one of a group of friends who although culturally diverse share a common educational heritage. Raucous banter is exchanged, eating and drinking occurs and some lively dancing takes place. The group seem at ease with themselves and each other. Then a catalyst arrives in the shape of Victoria (Amy Morgan) – surely the imperialist choice of name is deliberate – who is Gary and Mark’s boss. She proceeds to get drunk but not in a good way and her assumptions and prejudices are soon made manifest. This starts a chain of events which rends the tight knit group apart and provides the drama of the piece. Played through without interval I couldn’t help thinking that the writing was struggling to encompass all the many layers that were being presented. I, for one, would have liked to have seen some aspects developed further and I would certainly have liked an interval so I could reflect on what I had seen so far. These restrictions lead to a rather sledgehammer approach which detracts from the piece’s overall effectiveness.
The most interesting aspect of the play, for me, was the even-handed way in which the author dealt with her characters making them all complex and flawed. Nobody here is let off lightly or escapes criticism. It was emphatically not the case that we were asked to see characters as victims or victimisers but rather understand that they were all complex humans with just as many foibles as strengths. So, while Gary is undoubtedly the victim of racism, he is also the perpetrator of misogyny. Anjum (Manjinder Virk) follows the dictates of her faith but is not above massaging the system when it comes to her own children’s futures. Even the practical and dependable Nicky turns out to have an extremely dark side indeed.
There was not a weak link in the cast and all of them were given their moment to shine by the script. The audience-pleasing, straight-talking Karen (Petra Letang) was a particular highlight for many and at one point her delivery raised such mayhem in the audience that the play itself came to a halt. Personally, I felt a deal of empathy with the harassed Mo (Asif Khan) trying to organise the autumn fair at his children’s school as though that would, in some way, positively affect the result of his child’s 11 plus exam.
The audience on the first night was an integral part of the action and there were many audible gasps and shouted out remarks as the layers of the characters’ psyches were peeled away and their foibles revealed. A small group near to me were seldom unafraid to vocalise their feelings about the character’s revelations only to find themselves wrong footed by a later turn of events; ironically, they provided their own instance of how partially informed prejudice can gain a toehold. I’m not sure if this was the director Michael Buffon’s intention but, to be honest, it all became a bit grating after a while. I began to feel that I was being manipulated and told what to think rather than left to make up my own mind and that the audience were being made complicit in this. Some audience members even seemed to become partisan – perhaps missing the point that none of these characters were to blame but that none of them were blameless either.
However, to return to the drama onstage… I am afraid I could not believe in designer Anna Fleischle’s main setting of Gary and Nicky’s flat. Far from being cramped and undesirable it looked extremely spacious and swishly decorated – not at all the sort of place that a young couple would be desperate to leave. Although there were a few toys scattered around it simply did not have that lived in feeling of a family home. The office locations were much better realised and lighting by Aideen Malone was particularly effective in the short epilogue which took two of the characters back to more optimistic times.
There is no doubt this was a powerful play but, in my opinion, it was a flawed one. That it is a completely timely piece will play to the Royal Court’s advantage and will keep their reputation for unflinching new writing intact. However, the piece should perhaps have spent more time in development in order to explore the characters and diminish one or two moments of soap opera influenced revelations. It will be interesting to see how the play goes on to fare in the light of the momentous decisions being made today.*
I’m aware that my criticisms of the audience talking, commenting and even shouting out throughout the whole piece may not sit well with some readers. After all surely it was occurring because they were so engaged with the piece? Well, possibly or is it all to do with the rise of social media and participatory TV shows where everyone feels they have the right to have their opinion heard, preferably at once? I only hope they can feel quite so fired up in order to make their feelings known at the ballot box. Talking of which, I haven’t quite got round to voting yet. That’s next on my list once this piece is published. The “time is ripe” as Mr Shakespeare would say.