Last year Hari Dhillon stood at Bush Theatre and yelled that Muslims are the new Jews. He was playing New York lawyer Amir Kapoor in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. This year we have Steve John Shepherd playing Paul, a pub landlord in Chris Thompson’s Albion yelling that white working class men are “the new fucking niggers.” Self-perception is shifting and there’s a lot to explore but Albion,which attempts to shed light on hostile far right groups and the people they appeal to, only serves to overload us with arguments in its portrayal of the white working class. It presents us with stances we’re already too familiar with and worse still, its karaoke-style structure has the characters burst into emotionally charged, overplayed songs like “I Will Survive” and “Seven Nation Army.” It’s a way for them to hammer home their points but also distracts from any possible moments of poignancy.
The show opens with a monologue from Jayson (Tony Clay), a karaoke enthusiast who believes in “British jobs for British people.” Jayson’s brother Paul is the leader of the English Protection Army (EPA), a group with few active members and even fewer policies. His sister Poppy is a soldier on active duty in Iraq. Poppy’s boyfriend Karl (Delroy Atkinson) is an unemployed ex-con who is also the only black member of the EPA. Comically, Karl is fully aware of how many stereotypes he embodies. The play unfortunately, is not.
After a bout of Jayson’s vague proclamations about the fundamentals of karaoke, the third rule of which is “don’t be a cunt,” we are treated to a speech from one of the smarter characters, Christine. A former social worker with an aversion to multiculturalism, Christine is now a mayoral candidate with a cookery book of English recipes, rapidly selling out (in more ways than one) on the shopping channel.
The lives of these characters converge as we jump back to the start of Christine’s journey and the events that led her to Paul, Jayson and the EPA. After being used as a scapegoat when her local authority fail to protect a group of white girls from a group of male, Asian abusers, Christine aligns herself with the anti-Muslim fervour Paul is whipping up in his pub. Ordinary working class people have been abandoned, he claims, and the EPA are their only true representative. It’s a shame then, that they have a reputation for thuggery and hooliganism.
Paul knows this and after meeting Christine his indifference to the EPA’s public image changes and he lets her teach him about politically correct language and what to expect from media attention. They both fail however, to come up with any legislative proposals.
Meanwhile, Jayson starts dating Aashir who runs a YouTube Slam night and wants to hire Paul and Jayson’s pub, The Albion, for his next event. It’s an opportunity for Paul to show how gay-friendly the EPA are and it doesn’t hurt that Aashir is an Asian Muslim.
It’s clear from the programme notes that Albion exists to legitimise the feelings of white working class people whose opinions are too frequently overlooked in socio-political discourse. The play makes a further attempt to get the audience to empathise with the characters but it makes a few glaring errors in this regard.
If you want to remind your audience that your characters are worth listening to, it doesn’t make sense to make them out to be as vapid as those in Albion. Paul for example, is hasty. He doesn’t listen, he’s a busybody focused on issues which, even if he got his own way, wouldn’t make a world of difference to his life. At one point he goes into a school to argue about halal meat being the only meat available on the menu. His very valid point that there are people who fundamentally disagree with the way halal meat is produced is buried when it’s revealed that he doesn’t even have a child at the school. It’s meant to be a punchline but it makes Paul out to be sanctimonious, revelling in his own victim mentality.
Another example of Thompson undermining his characters is his reference to the real life Press TV interview with an EDL protester which went viral in in 2011. In the play, Jayson delivers a similar, poorly articulated explanation about why he feels the the need to protest.“The Muslamification. All the Muslamics, they’re Muslimifying us” he garbles at a journalist. When this happened in reality, it was an example of the way the media often demonise the white working class by picking out the most incoherent person in a crowd and giving them the floor. Re-enacting this to get laughs or to explain why people in groups like the EDL have a reputation for being hooligans is redundant at best and patronising at worst. It feels especially unfair when Thompson presents such an incoherent speech through a character like Jayson who spends the rest of the play earnestly trying to figure out where he stands but never really coming to any conclusion, as though he’s grasping around for a point that doesn’t exist.
This scene begins with Jayson singing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ pumping himself up for a fight before the big EPA protest. Before this, other characters have belted out Cher’s ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ at a funeral and Usher’s ‘Good Kisser’ during a bedroom scene. The programme notes explain that Thompson intends this karaoke inspired storytelling structure to recognise what an outlet karaoke is for some people. He talks about how it can be an adrenalin rush, an identity marker and a way of becoming someone else for a few minutes. He also discusses the way people still congregate to hear and participate in this kind of music at a time when religious hymns have less and less collective relevance.
It’s a well theorised idea but in practice it trivialises the points he’s making in his play. They key to karaoke is, as Jayson reminds us, not to take it too seriously. But both Thompson and director Ria Parry use it to make big important points and it feels silly. When Christine sings “sing it, shake it, move it, make it, who do you think you are?” as she tells Paul how to revamp his image, it feels particularly cringe-worthy.
Had Albion focused on PR for the white working class, pinkwashing or even the co-opting of soldiers’ deaths, it might have left an impact. But as it is, it carries far too many themes to make any of them stick. When Paul cries out that the white working class are being treated with the same dismissive attitude as black people, it’s a clarion call. But unlike the similar desperation in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, it’s so far removed from critical thinking, it’s hard to take seriously. In one scene, Paul reels off a tick list off gripes: “Trojan horses, halal meat, Sharia law,” he rants away. It too often feels like the play is doing a similar thing.
Image by Richard Davenport