Wellcome Collection, London NW1
Opened 22 April, 2010

The principal selling point of this “part play, part gig, part installation” is not that it is the first theatrical presentation in the exhibition/display space of the Wellcome Collection, but rather that it involves singer, songwriter and activist Billy Bragg, the erstwhile bard of Barking. Truth to tell, the handful of songs played by Bragg and his band add colour and depth to Mick Gordon’s play but are not essential to it as theatre. Rather, the value is more intangible: any contemporary exploration of English national identity must inevitably address the appeal of far-right political groups, and so it is valuable to have the active endorsement of one of the greatest living exponents of the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, especially now. As Bragg put it on press night, “At a time when these rascals are trying to get elected in east London, [this play] cuts right through the bullshit.”
Well, almost right through. Like virtually every play on the subject, it addresses the feelings of the white working class in areas such as Essex of being disadvantaged, even alien in their own country; and like virtually every play, it condemns the ways in which these are too often expressed; but does little or nothing to actually rebut them. It is no good telling people their feelings are wrong morally, without demonstrating how they are wrong substantively. Here, that occurs only in a passing line or two from Jon (Justin Salinger), who left home to become a Wall Street trader and has now returned for his father’s funeral, only to find that the bully of his adolescence is still a thug and is on the point of persuading Jon’s brother to run for the local council on a (we infer) British National Party ticket. Moreover, history is repeating itself, with Thug Junior heavying Jon’s nephew… or is he his son?
The richness of Gordon’s script, which far outweighs the cautiousness I have mentioned, is that it includes so many different vectors of political, cultural, romantic and even musical relationships. Christopher Haydon’s promenade production makes a lot of smart choices: a few well-defined playing spaces, occasional use of the areas between them, and swift pacing rather than waiting for the audience to dawdle between one location and the next. Ultimately, too, the play bears out Toots and the Maytals’ observation in the title song: “When it drops, you gonna feel it/ Know that you were doing wrong.” Let us hope that also proves true electorally.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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