Central Lines at Theatre Royal Stratford | Theatre Review

Central Lines

For just over a week the Theatre Royal Stratford East in conjunction with the Soho Theatre, hosted a season of readings for work-in-progress plays taking a look at life in contemporary Britain called ‘Central Lines’. SoulCulture’s Tola Ositelu had the chance to preview two of these exciting new theatrical pieces.

‘Inheritance’ by Mike Packer is a fever-pitched, moving and funny take on that most topical of issues – the economic crisis. Or rather it’s a look at the coping mechanisms of the ordinary individuals who bear the brunt of it, the role they played in their own financial ruin and the warped values of modern western society that influence these bad choices.  Set on both sides of the Thames, the tale has an almost biblical feel to it.  Harry, the Charlie Parker-loving, long-suffering widowed patriarch is proud of his working class heritage.  He’s nostalgic for the days when the Labour party was a viable alternative political voice, staying close to its socialist roots.  From his favourite armchair he observes his two sons very different approach to life.  Frank the older sibling is sensitive and conscientious; he’s all new age religion, aromatherapy candles, respectable career-minded wife and middle class aspirations.  Then there’s Dave; scurrilous, chauvinistic, tabloid-reading freeloader who’s recently been fired from his job for stealing money.  It’s a veritable 21st Century Cain and Abel style set-up.

The play opens with the bombshell of Harry announcing to Frank that he has Prostate cancer.  His chances of recovery remain uncertain so Harry gets to thinking about what he should bequeath his loved ones if he should die.  Initially reluctant, out of principle, to take advantage of the darling of the Thatcher era ‘Right to Buy’ policy on his flat, he now reconsiders the decision in favour of leaving something behind for his posterity.  Frank’s Estate Agent wife Susan agrees to assist her father-in-law get a ‘favourable’ mortgage and before long Harry and his sons are victims of the pre-credit crunch delusions that trapped so many.  Frank and Susan go from shopping at Waitrose to bargain hunting at Lidl via Sainsbury’s.  As their respective situations become more and more dire the true, unattractive colours of the characters come to the surface.  Beneath the veneer of gentility Frank and Susan claim to espouse lies the same vulgarity and greed that Dave doesn’t pretend to hide.  Old resentments re-emerge and the two brothers discover to their disgust that they are more alike than they would admit.  With the right kind of financial backing and some fleshing out of the characters ‘Inheritance’ promises to be an explosive, thought-provoking piece of contemporary theatre should it get a chance to be staged properly.

‘A Day At The Racists’ written by Anders Lustgarten and directed by Lisa Goldman (who later joined the audience for a post-show discussion) – is a no-holds-barred study of the race and class relations in modern Britain simmering underneath the glossy sheen of multiculturalism.  ‘A Day…’ takes place in a not-too-distant disturbing future, when the British National Party is getting ready to unleash their first non-Caucasian candidate on an unsuspecting Britain.

Pete Case is a world-weary former trade union activist with a bit of the old Red revolution still burning inside him.  He is disillusioned and betrayed by his erstwhile party of choice’s re-invention as New Labour.  Proud of his cultural heritage as an Englishman and uncertain how to express it, he’s beginning to feel more and more marginalised by the mainstream.  His son Mark is the archetypal product of a cosmopolitan society. He’s as comfortable speaking in patois as he is with his strong cockney twang.  He embarks on a relationship with Zenobia, a sophisticated young Afro-Brit teacher at his mixed-race daughter Ella’s primary school.  As construction workers both Pete and Mark have found their services are no longer in such demand when there are an influx of labourers from the former-Eastern Bloc willing to do the same jobs a lot cheaper.  It’s at this vulnerable time Pete stumbles across Gina White (an exceptional performance by Chetna Pandya), the young, beautiful, articulate Anglo-Asian BNP candidate for an unnamed East-London borough, with many a well-hidden personal axe to grind.  Clearly certain members of the party wish to change tack and put on a more appealing, ‘respectable’ face.  Playing up to some of the legitimate economic concerns of working-class Englishmen such as Pete, Gina denounces the racist old guard that have come to characterise the BNP and manages to convince Case to be her campaign manager.  He soon discovers that the party are not as progressive as Gina makes out and she is not accepted by all.   Pete starts to lead a double-life, torn between his deep-seated values that led him to clash with the BNP in his youth and a way of getting his political voice heard no matter how distasteful the means.

‘A Day…’ is a powder keg of issues reflecting the complex nature of Britain’s current political and economic landscape.  It is not afraid to challenge the notion that multiculturalism is all peace, harmony and utopia when quite often it is anything but.  Writer, Anders Lustgarten, isn’t unaware for instance of the plight of those of mixed-heritage who can still feel a sense of cultural displacement in a 21st century Britain that revels in its diversity.  In Gina we see that this tension can result in the most extreme reactions.  But  ‘A Day…’ is also keen to point out that the difficulties facing the UK right now are not as simple as black and white; the roots of the problems run far deeper.  There’s new immigration versus old immigration, the matter being less of a problem for some the further back in time it occurred.  Political parties, mainstream and non all employ the same cynical and manipulative tactics to propel to the forefront career politicians who appeal to a certain demographic.  Well intentioned liberals fail to see they are on the same trajectory as the bigots when all their efforts to be politically correct prove they can’t see beyond a person’s cultural background.  ‘A Day…’ also reminds us that the class system still entrenched in British society can be an even more pernicious enemy to the masses than racism.  Most of all the play shows that the BNP sympathesisers are not always as different from the genteel members of the public as we’d like to believe.  The subconscious racialist attitudes of which no-one is immune come to the fore. Generalisations about a group of people cause us to forget the good rapport we have with the individual.   Couple this with economic melt-down, a lack of identity and loss of ostensible cultural values and it leads to disenchantment where even intelligent, well-meaning people can make foolish and dangerous decisions.  The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

Terms such as ‘brave’ and ‘daring’ are so often thrown at plays like ‘A Day…’ the words can become redundant.  Yet ‘…At The Racists’ has already earned every accolade it is sure to receive once it goes into full production.  Despite dealing with myriad themes it doesn’t tie itself in knots or leave the audience with a tangle of loose ends.  The audience were shocked into applause when the director Lisa Goldman explained the cast had only 10 hours of rehearsal before the reading was staged.  Even in its present embryonic form ‘A Day…’ is a complete and accomplished theatrical work. It thankfully avoids turning its cast into pantomime-villain caricatures, even when it would be too easy (for example Pete’s arch-nemesis Tony McDonald, the bullish BNP mainstay played pitch-perfectly by Trevor Cooper).  The multi-faceted, complicated nature of the characters stops the play falling over the precipice of heavy-handed rhetoric the topic could inspire.  Nigel Lindsay excels in his nuanced portrayal of Pete, playing the role with all the subtlety and sensitivity that it demands.   Clint Dyer’s does a commendable job as Clinton, Pete’s long time Afro-Caribbean friend from their days as trade unionists.  Jason Maza holds his own very well as Mark, coming to terms with his once-principled father’s fall from grace.  Adam James, comes dangerously close to being typecast (you might remember him from similarly slimy roles on hit TV shows ‘Extras: Christmas special’ and ‘Hustle’) as the Mephistophelean Rick Coleman – the BNP’s intellectual and urbane alternative to the thuggish McDonald.  James has the dubious honour of playing the part like he was born to do it.

‘A Day…’ does exactly what great, responsible political drama should and informs the audience much more than a ton of government literature lecturing us about tolerance and equality could.  It is an even-handed, sympathetic, intelligent piece of new theatre that thoroughly deserves the funding for a proper run.

For further information on Circle Lines visit stratfordeast.com

Tola Ositelu