David Edgar’s first play for Out of Joint, completing a tour at the Tricycle in Kilburn this month before going on to the Birmingham Rep for a few days in May, is both fast and funny in its discussion of what it might mean to be British if you are applying for the status of citizenship.
Testing the Echo, like David Hare’s The Permanent Way for the same company, takes the pulse of the nation in the fragmentary dramatic form of sharp scenes, filmed insets, quick changes of character, minimal scenery and a dizzying amount of information.
Hare’s play was about the railways and grief, privatisation and civic responsibility. Edgar isolates two narrative strands – the ideological crisis of a young Muslim abducted “for his own good,” and the domestic tensions in an oppressive marriage – which are fused into the possibility of change at a government-sponsored English class, itself leading to an idea of assimilation and an oath of allegiance to the Queen.
Almost too much happens too quickly, and maybe there is not enough “set-up” to get us involved. But Edgar is attempting not an emotional drama, nor an agitprop pamphlet, but a flourish, I suppose, of a complex subject in a theatrical setting...and not just any old subject, this; perhaps the most important one of our day.
You realise that being British is not quite the same as having the rights of a citizen. The play’s structural focal point is the English class run by Emma, played with ebullient brightness by Teresa Banham, where the issues of learning past and future tenses blurs with the phrase book meanings of simple rights and habits. The mixed-race class becomes a semantic minefield of options and etiquette, for instance, on the subject of wearing veils.
The twin subjects of British-ness and radicalism are stretched backwards in a couple of dinner party scenes, where Emma’s husband (Robert Gwilym) re-visits the Paris “evenements” of May 1968, and we are asked to consider the plight of Eastern Europeans or Ethiopians who come to Britain in order to benefit from our sympathy and not just our benefits.
Gwilym also plays the mayor at the ceremony of the oath, as well as a Pakistani pupil. A typically versatile cast of eight, including Farzana Dua Elahe (pictured), Kirsty Bushell and Ian Dunn, skim across topics of prostitution, questionnaires and “how to become a citizen” with sharp wits and witty sharpness in Matthew Dunster’s non-stop, 100-minute production.