Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 25th May, 2017
This touring show from the National Theatre is described as a work in progress – largely because, I suspect, Brexit has yet to happen and the debate still rages on – this absorbing piece of verbatim theatre, using the words of ordinary people from across the nation (as well as the drivel of politicians) to chart the country’s mood, before, during and after the referendum that split the UK in two.
In a clever framing device, writer Carol Ann Duffy has Britannia herself (Penny Layden) welcome representative from the regions to a meeting, a chance to listen. The regional reps are clearly distinguishable by their accents and attitudes. For example, Cymru (the marvellous Christian Patterson) enters voice first, as befits a Welshman; Laura Elphinstone’s North East rep is a hoot, deadpan and down-to-earth, plain-speaking and unpretentious. Cavan Clarke’s Northern Ireland breaks out into a spot of Riverdance in one of the show’s livelier moments, while Stuart McQuarrie’s Caledonia proudly recites Robert Burns, supplying the whisky and the pragmatism.
Britannia oversees as, in the voices of their ‘constituents’, the reps air the views of the people, complete with hesitations, repetitions and deviations, for spot-on authenticity. The opinions are often humorous, telling, and eye-opening. It’s like an extended episode of Creature Comforts with flesh-and-blood actors standing in for the plasticene animals.
For what is essentially a piece in which seven actors sit behind desks, it comes across as anything but static. Director Rufus Norris breaks up the recitations with action and humour – although most of the best lines come from the vox pops. The reps may be stereotypes but the many and varied statements we hear mark us as a nation of individuals, albeit with some shared characteristics. It’s almost as if the UK is a microcosm of the EU. Fancy that!
Britannia chips in statements from MPs. Her Boris Johnson is almost as vile as the real thing, as he tries to make bizarre and ludicrous analogies instead of facing issues head on. Layden positively drips evil as Nigel Farage, spewing his ‘voice of reason’ bile. Yuck. Although it’s not quite a year since the vote, the show brings it all flooding back, including the frustration and disbelief I felt at the mismanagement of the entire campaign by both sides.
More than that, the show is a celebration of British identity in all its manifestations, reminding us we have always been a diverse agglomeration of regional differences.
The show ends with Britannia saying she still loves us all and what we need more than ever is leadership.
Let’s hope we get it, eh, Brit?