Review: People Like Us at the Union Theatre

When it comes to Brexit, the one thing we can all agree on is that we don’t agree. The vote to leave the EU in June 2016 has been more divisive than any other political issue that I can recall in my lifetime, and while I personally voted Remain, I’m open-minded enough to acknowledge that Brexit could turn out to be not quite the disaster it appears to be, and to want to understand the other side of the debate.

Apparently, this makes me worthy of ridicule – at least according to Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, whose play People Like Us promises to “uniquely provide an argument for both sides of the debate”, and in doing so address the tendency within the arts to focus on the Remainer viewpoint. This is not a bad thing; we live in a culture of free speech, after all, and there’s certainly a need for theatre that makes us think outside our usual mindset.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

Unfortunately, People Like Us is not the play to do it. The cast of five do a decent enough job with the material, but there’s no hiding the fact that this is essentially one big, self-congratulatory dig at the Remain camp and everyone in it. Focusing on the members of a north London book club just before and after the vote, there’s absolutely no attempt at reasoned political debate, and any suggestion that the play presents a balanced view is, frankly, laughable. Remainer Ralph (Kamaal Hussain) is presented as a cartoonishly privileged cry-baby, a cad who abandoned his wife and daughters for sexy French environmentalist Clémence (Marine Andre). Worse, he then allows her to manipulate him into labelling Frances (Sarah Toogood) and Stacey (Gemma-Germaine) – the decent, hard-working patriots who voted for Brexit – as ignorant racists, and kicking them out of the book club.

Now, I’m more than aware there are Remainers who think that way, and it’s certainly reasonable – necessary, even – to point it out. Similarly, I understand there are many, many people who voted for Brexit who had good reasons for doing so, and who are not, in fact, ignorant racists. It does, however, seem a rather counterproductive approach to make the case against stereotyping people by, er, massively stereotyping people. (This stereotyping, incidentally, includes the portrayal of the Brexiters, who can offer no particular reason for their decision other than “democracy” – rather playing into the hands of those inclined to question their understanding of the situation.)

And just in case we need convincing that the writers have little interest in reasoned political debate, the book club’s fifth member Will (Paul Giddings) – the one character who’s willing to be a grown-up, accept the result of the vote and attempt to look for some common ground – is bullied mercilessly by both sides, because he’s not kicking and screaming in either victory or defeat.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

In fact, it’s a wonder the book club lasted until the Brexit vote, since none of the characters seem to like each other very much even before politics gets involved. Frances and Stacey make fun of Clémence for being a do-gooder; she in turn judges them for drinking too much. Ralph is tiring of his new young wife, and clearly has some unfinished business with Stacey, who’s all too aware of the fact. And of course, everyone looks down on Will, because – well, he’s an easy target. Consequently, the play isn’t even particularly fun to watch, since almost all the characters are such horrible people and it’s impossible to empathise with them, regardless of our own political stance. A few of the one-liners – mostly those from Will, the one likeable character – raise a chuckle, but everything else about the play feels so needlessly unpleasant that the humour often falls flat.

With the Brexit vote now two years behind us, and an uncertain future ahead, it’s sad to see so much bitterness lingering on between the two sides of the debate – and a play that seems to deliberately set out to perpetuate that bad feeling is at best unhelpful, at worst dangerous. The idea to examine how Brexit has come between friends, lovers and family members is certainly an interesting one, and it’s a topic worthy of further debate. But for me, People Like Us takes too much delight in the division to make any meaningful contribution to that discussion.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: H.R.Haitch at the Union Theatre

Reading the papers this week – or indeed most weeks – you have to wonder how being a princess could ever be considered a fairy tale ending. Sure, you might bag yourself a handsome prince, but I think Meghan Markle would confirm by now that marrying into royalty also brings its fair share of trauma.

Spare a thought then for poor Chelsea in Maz Evans and Luke Bateman’s royal romcom H.R.Haitch, who’s about to discover her posh but dim boyfriend Bertie is actually Prince Albert, and second in line to the throne. Bertie’s been sheltered from public attention for the last 20 years, but his identity is about to be revealed and he wants Chelsea at his side when the big moment arrives. Which is all well and good, except she’s not exactly a believer in the merits of the monarchy, and is more than happy to rant about that fact to anyone who’ll listen. Meanwhile the new prime minister wants a referendum on the future of the royal family, Chelsea’s dad’s East End pub’s about to be shut down, and Bertie’s scheming older sister Victoria is tired of being spare to the heir just because she had the bad luck to be born female.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

That’s a lot to get through in a couple of hours, but somehow it all comes together in this by-the-book romantic comedy about an unlikely couple who somehow overcome what would in real life certainly be insurmountable obstacles to find happiness. H.R.Haitch is enjoyably silly and entirely predictable, but there’s nothing wrong with that; so are most romantic comedies, after all. And because it’s set in the infinitely simpler time that was 2011, there are plenty of opportunities for humour at 2018’s expense. Granted some of these are rather over-milked (the Uber gag in particular gets old fast), and others feel ill-timed (wishing Ant and Dec a speedy recovery is a bit close to the bone) but there are enough genuine laughs in between to ensure the audience is kept entertained. Daniel Winder’s production also makes use of seamlessly integrated multimedia content, as a reminder that just outside the doors of the pub/palace, the world’s media lies in wait…

Likeable leads Tori Allen-Martin and Christian James lead a universally strong cast of six, three of whom – Andrea Miller, Christopher Lyne and Prince Plockey – appear in comically opposite dual roles that further highlight the vastly different worlds in which Chelsea and Bertie live. Meanwhile Emily Jane Kerr quite literally sneers for England in a brilliant stand-out performance as the villain of the piece, Princess Victoria.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

The songs are pleasantly catchy and for the most part keep the action moving along, with a repertoire that includes everything from heartfelt ballads to lively East End knees-ups. This varied musical menu allows the cast to showcase some impressive vocal talents, accompanied by musical director Oli George Rew, who’s discreetly installed on a piano in endangered Barking boozer the Dog and Duck.

Much like Chelsea and Bertie’s romance, H.R.Haitch might not always be particularly elegant, but it’s good fun, and its heart is in the right place. And if nothing else, it gives us a couple of hours’ escape from wondering who’s going to walk Meghan down the aisle.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉