Far right politics infused with karaoke might seem like an unlikely blend, but this unusual theatrical concoction, written by Chris Thompson, makes for uncomfortable and tense viewing, in a rather unexpected way.
Paul Ryman values diversity but he's also the leader of the far right group: the English Protection Army (EPA). He runs the Albion pub in London's east end, where meet and greet nights for the EPA and karaoke nights are regular fixtures. His younger brother Jayson is an avid karaoke enthusiast and his energetic opening number "Hey ya" by Andre 3000 quite literally sets the tone of the production.
Polemic and music become entwined here. As songs by the Spice Girls and Tom Jones roll out, so do the issues of Islamaphobia, national identity and the inclusion of "Sikhs, Hindus and Gays" in the EPA. There's also the timely story of Christine Wolfe, a social worker who felt unable to protect white girls against Asian gangs, for fear of disrupting community relations. Plus, the use of a rhetoric that's synonymous with diversity initiatives and multiculturalism, to temper ideology and appeal to the masses. Undoubtedly, there's a lot of politically charged content here, but the clever use of karaoke relays the ease with which meaning alters, and momentum builds.
Christine's rendition of The Weather Girls' song, "It's Raining Men", takes on new significance as riot images are projected on screen and tumble out on stage. Without exception, it's the most powerful and memorable scene of the production.
Regular outbursts of karaoke may not appeal to everyone's theatrical palette, particularly when songs appear with the frequency of a musical, but they create a disconcerting tension between the gravity of the subject matter and the oft upbeat, populist tunes that become interspersed with the action. The audience are very much trapped between the beat and the discourse; a defining marker of the play. The rhythmic undertone in the background also maintains an unflinching sense of urgency throughout the production.
The constant outpouring of song does restrict the level of pathos that one would expect from a play about the rise of the far right. But the strong performances, coupled by the innovative approach to such hard-hitting and politically charged subject matter tips this star rating to four.
Albion is a jukebox of provocation, conflict and division; a play that doesn't so much pack a punch, as sing an unsettling song.