One man says to another: “A plane has flown into the twin towers.” The other replies: “What – Wembley?”
This is the somewhat risky humour that Richard Bean employs in his new play England People Very Nice, a comic romp through the history of immigration in England.
Bean places his play within a play; a bunch of inmates in a London detention centre, many of them asylum seekers awaiting their fate, stage a play about immigration, directed by Olivia Colman’s Philippa. So the various nationalities act out the stories of those immigrants who came to Bethnal Green before them – from the Romans to the French, the Irish, the Russian Jews and the Bangladeshis – across centuries of history.
Packing so much into one play means that much of history is relayed at speed, simplified and summed up through one visual gag or punchline, much like the style of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The device also means that Bean’s summation of history is sprinkled heavily with stereotypes – the Irish are all incestuous, ignorant pig-lovers, for example – which extracted much laughter from the audience. Bean is even-handed in his mockery of all the races, cultures and religions that make up the nation; white, middle class liberals with children called Galaxy are laughed at as much as Eastern European Jewish immigrants. “There’s no smoke without salmon” goes one Jewish joke.
Very much an ensemble piece, the large cast all play various characters across the ages and are accompanied by Pete Bishop’s cartoon-style animations, projected onto Mark Thompson’s versatile set. With the backstage dressing area clearly visible behind the set, Nicholas Hytner’s production has a hasty, thrown-together feel. This, along with several staged jokes that Bean sets up before the play-within-a-play begins, reminds us that this is an amateur production by a group of detainees who have made their own false beards. In that, Bean gets away with his stereotyping.
More a series of scenes than one continuous narrative, the various stories are, however, tied together by a common theme: love. In each scenario the play depicts a love story that transcends the racial and cultural divide. Michelle Terry and Sacha Dhawan play these various pairings through the ages, beginning with a Frenchwoman and a Norfolk boy and ending with an East End girl and a Bangladeshi curry house-owner who invented Chicken Tikka Masala. Sophie Stanton, showing that foul-mouthed barmaids haven’t changed much in centuries, also provides some consistency in the production.
Bean has a couple of serious points to make amid the slapstick: in depicting the extent of England’s immigration history he shows that every Englishman is the sum of many mixed parts; and by showing the fractures that appear within, as well as between, races, he points out the hypocrisy of racism. His ultimate message is a simple one. England may be a hugely diverse place with a history of discord between communities but, as John Lennon said, all you need is love, because love conquers all. It is hardly an original thought, but maybe the world needs a little reminder of it right now.