Friday 19 March 2010

‘This democracy, it’s a contact sport’

A Day at the Racists, Finborough Theatre, London

Everybody is talking about the BNP. It seems as though each day brings a new and exciting topic: should Nick Griffin appear on Question Time or not, should they allow blacks and Asians to join, do they spell the end for Western liberal democracy and a return to 1930s Germany. A production would do well were it to manage to avoid buying into the liberal hysteria around the BNP and engage in a sensible discussion about what, if anything, they represent today. Enter Anders Lustgarten’s new play at the Finborough Theatre, A Day at the Racists.

Pete is an ex-union organiser turned painter and decorator. He and his peers were responsible, in his words, for ‘making the Labour Party by standing freezing our nuts off on the picket lines’. Today he finds himself in a political culture that he does not understand. His concerns about housing are met by a patronising local MP armed only with policy statements couched in the language of middle management, his son loses his job when the housing contract he worked hard to secure is undercut by under-qualified cheap labour from abroad, and his granddaughter’s school would sooner teach the kids about community cohesion than ‘good old fashioned, British history’. Pete is a veteran of political idealism but has reluctantly accepted that nowadays ‘the only people with any real ambition are the immigrants’.

Then he meets Gina, a young, local mixed-race woman running as a prospective parliamentary candidate for the BNP. Like Pete she feels let down by the political establishment and is passionate about changing the world. Pete becomes involved in the party organisation and in doing so, drives a wedge between him and those he cares about. In the end he is forced to choose between a life of isolated political activism in the BNP and a quiet life complaining about the death of political culture.

The production benefits from a decent cast. Thusitha Jayasundera is inspiring as Gina in spite of her character’s deeply uninspiring politics, and Julian Littman is convincing in his portrayal of Pete’s sinking political horizons. Ryan McBryde directs in a way that avoids caricature and allows the subtle political and personal conflicts to build into uncomfortable climaxes. It is gripping and funny throughout, yet maintains a sense that the playwright has been intellectually rigorous enough to understand what lies behind contemporary political disillusionment.

As a result of this the show does not make the mistake of portraying the white working class as inherently racist, or a mass pogrom waiting to happen. It presents complex and likeable characters that are all, in their own way, desperate to believe that change is possible. Other reviews of this show point out that it is unrealistic that Pete, as an old Marxist would fall for the tactics of the BNP. This misses the point. Pete does not join because he is a closet racist desperate for a mainstream outlet, but because he misses his own sense of political purpose. In that way it is not a play about racism but about how, and whether it is possible, to have an impact on the world around you. Lustgatren’s creepy BNP leader sums it up about right, when he remarks after a punch up backstage at one of Gina’s speeches: ‘This democracy, it’s a contact sport’.

Till 27 March 2010


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