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Royal Court, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 1 June 2007

DC Moore’s Royal Court debut is an assured, clever bit of work with some excellent jokes and enjoyably kooky plotting – the problem is that this is an exceptional, energetic production of a play that already feels both formally and thematically dated.

Consider the evidence: Frank is a lower-middle-class racist, alienated by his postmodern multicultural social betters at university, he leaves higher education and returns to his anonymous provincial home town and his job in a multiplex cinema; his life is given a shake when a striking Indian girl (Fiona Wade) starts work there and makes it clear that she finds him attractive. From there on in, Frank’s mental wellbeing gradually unravels; he becomes unreliable at work, takes to drinking, and slides inexorably toward a violent, racist confrontation. It’s a well-worn plot (cf. Made in Britain, American History X and, recently, This Is England), although Moore anticipates this and neatly subverts audience expectation with a series of unexpected twists at the end. There’s even a knowing nod to the venue’s history as the erstwhile home of Sarah Kane et al: ‘He started being all. All in my face’ (my italics). But, none of this cleverness can disguise the fact that the play’s politics feel out of date.

It’s not that Britain isn’t racist any more; it’s just the Black/White simplicity of the racism depicted here is so unsophisticated. An early scene cleverly contrasts Frank’s old-fashioned racism with the unthinking postmodern ironic stance of his university peers. As he, with deliberation, explains: ‘I didn’t work and save up for three years to go clubbing with Pakis’, a room-mate staggers drunkenly around in fancy dress blackface as the A-Team’s BA Baracus. It is significant that Frank is not part of a gang or movement. This is the racism of a lone nutcase. His justifications of white supremacy are drawn from trumped-up tales of Biblical mistranslation, offering ‘the light-skinned’ rather than ‘the Jews’ as God’s chosen people.

That said, this is a brilliantly acted, breathlessly directed bit of theatre. The performances alone are worth the ticket price. Maria Aberg has drawn excellent work from her young cast. Man-of-the-moment Rafe Spall as Frank is a masterclass in sneering, barely-suppressed rage, turning on a sixpence from dumb self-pity to utter contempt, while Thomas Morrison as his cinema co-worker Chris is a brilliant study in nervy, peer-pressured geekdom. Fiona Wade turns in a well-observed performance as the sassy, clever new girl, while Christine Bottomley makes a convincing slack-jawed shopgirl. Moore’s dialogue crackles, and the tension as the play builds towards its climax is genuinely unnerving.

Nonetheless it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a slight regression to the bad old days of the Royal Court when playwrights conjured up images of an imagined underclass whose views titilatingly diverged from those of a liberal, metropolitan elite, who could thus come away into Sloane Square shaking their heads and chattering. It also feels significant that there is not a single mention of Islam by Frank, no acknowledgement of the way that the far-right now cites fundamentalist Islam’s homophobia and abuses of women’s rights to co-opt liberal sympathies, no mention of the way that immigration in modern Britain is now so multi-ethnic that it cannot be colour-coded – or that pubs are starting to put up ‘No Poles’ signs in the way that ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ was used in the 1950s.


Till 23 June 2007

 

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