Richard Bean's England People Very Nice premiered at the NT Olivier last night (12 February 2009, previews from 4 February), billed as “a riotous journey through four waves of immigration … written with scurrilous bravura”.
Running as part of the seventh annual Travelex £10 season, England People Very Nice covers a broad sweep of English history, centred around the various migrant communities living in Bethnal Green. From the French Huguenots to the Bangladeshis, Bean aims to show that tensions caused by immigration are nothing new.
NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner directs a large ensemble cast featuring Olivia Coleman, Rudi Dharmalingam, Sacha Dhawan, Michelle Terry, Fred Ridgeway and Sophie Stanton, with design by Mark Thompson. England People Very Nice runs in rep until 30 April 2009.
Like the characters it portrays, the critics were divided over England People Very Nice. On the pro side, it was an evening of “enjoyable ebullience”, while for the cons, it left a “sour taste in the mouth”. One element that most agreed on was an appreciation of Bean's “disgracefully funny” jokes and the strong performances of the ensemble. However, enjoyment of the play seemed to boil down to a simple question of taste. For some it was neither “liberal, humane or interesting” in its attitude towards multiculturalism, while for others Bean's script is filled with “wisdom and humanity”. All in all, Nice, but not Very.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “There’s a simple-minded glee about racial stereotypes in Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice in the Olivier … that threatens to engulf the audience in despair and disbelief, but Nicholas Hytner’s inventive and fast-moving production just about keeps the evening afloat. And you can rationalise the cartoon caricature side of things in the fact that the cast is a crowd of detainees in an immigration centre putting on their own play about the waves of incoming nationalities over the years … Bean the playwright usurps Bean the glib pamphleteer in these latter scenes of street violence, gentrification (celebrating 'an eclectic mix' in Clerkenwell) and the resolution of the barmaid’s personal life and political prejudice. The very high level of acting extends to Elliot Levey’s clutch of fanatics, Tony Jayawardena’s blind imam, Olivia Colman’s earnest director ('We took a democratic vote to close all discussion on the script') and Aaron Neil’s imposing chief rabbi and svelte Bangladeshi bigwig.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - “I generally admire Richard Bean … But his new work, dealing with the impact of four centuries of immigration on Bethnal Green, leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Far from rejoicing in London's ethnic diversity, it manipulates a series of comic stereotypes like a misanthropic 1066 And All That. Bean's framing device is a group of asylum seekers putting on a devised play about four waves of immigration … Bean shows that in each generation, love transcends the racial divide and 'laughs at the manufactured made-up madness of religion and culture'. The problem is that once we have got the point, the format becomes repetitive. But the play's prime flaw is that it substitutes generalised caricatures for detailed investigation of particular ethnic groups … while the gags come thick and fast, and the play theoretically pays tribute to Defoe's idea of 'that heterogeneous thing, an Englishman', the abiding impression is that Bean doesn't think much of our modern multiculturalism.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “At a time when Gordon Brown's ill-judged phrase about 'British jobs for British workers' has come back to haunt him, and the debate about multicultural Britain grinds fractiously on, Richard Bean's new play about immigration could hardly be more timely … In a broad dramatic style that owes a debt to Monty Python, the Carry On films and EastEnders, Bean tells the story of successive waves of immigration into the East End of London … In a neat framing device the play is presented as if it were a performance by the inmates of a present-day immigration centre as they wait to learn whether or not they can stay in Britain … But complacent Cockneys get it in the neck just as much as amorous Frenchmen, bog-Irish peasants, Jewish anarchists and today's radicalised young Muslims who pay court to hate-filled preachers. Beyond the often cheap, though disgracefully funny, jokes, there is wisdom and humanity in this play.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) - “I have never had a more uncomfortable or unpleasant experience at the National Theatre than at the premiere of Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice. I hated this gross, cartoon history of English reaction to four centuries of refugees arriving in London’s East End … Bean’s play, although factually based, is not liberal, humane or interesting in its continual, wisecracking jocularity. It lacks the smack of conflict and avoids intellectual argument. It appears intent upon defaming refugees to England in terms of the malevolent stereotypes and caricatures you find in The Sun. Its invective is often funny, sometimes inventively so, but in the slick, cruel, abusive style that Bernard Manning perfected ages ago … Bean qualifies his negative blasts by engineering a romance between Ida’s daughter and the endearing Mohammad Sona Rasul (known as Mushi). The time-defying love affair takes a generation to bring to fruition, but it slightly helps counter the play’s negative slant.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Who would think that unsexy subject, waves of immigration to Bethnal Green, could generate as much enjoyable ebullience as it does in Richard Bean’s new play? In they pour, sometimes beginning or ending as cartoons on the bleak timbering of Mark Thompson’s set: snooty Huguenots wincing at the 'foul-smelling swamp' to which they’ve fled, wild Irishmen escaping famine, Jews en route to sweatshops, Bangladeshis evading skinheads in the street. Think of a Horrible Histories for adults and you’ll get the feel of Nicholas Hytner’s sprawling but adroit production. And be warned. Some may find the scurrility offensive … It’s all presented as a play within a play, staged by asylum-seekers waiting for news of their fate, and that too emphasises that this is an unfinished story. The BNP makes trouble. Somalis join the queue. Will the Thames 'run with blood', to repeat a quote frequently cited in the play? It’s the sort of question a genuinely 'national' theatre should be asking.”
- by Theo Bosanquet