THE STATE OF ENGLAND: FUNNY, BEAUTIFUL, SAD
Some issues do best as satirical or farcical comedies: English class division, illicit sex, misunderstanding. Others sit less easily with the comic muse: cot death, grief, young lives wasted in war. Torben Betts, in this terrific play, is comfortable handling both, and does so with almost total success. It ran briefly in multi-ethnic, diverse East London: but with this new touring cast will be able to show a wider Britain to itself: at first teasingly, but then with an admirable sad seriousness.
For Oliver and Emma are parlour-leftie southerners with small children who have moved up North to save money and (especially in her case) to fulfil a self-righteous fantasy about living among “real people”. But the real people next door are the vampy Dawn (Kerry Bennett) and Alan (Graeme Brookes). Alan is an immense man-mountain in an England shirt, so untutored in middle-class ways that when they are invited round he sends his wife first, while he finishes watching the England match. He then turns up with a monologue of post-match analysis while the hosts stand speechless.
So far, so funny. Oliver – a redundant MoD civil servant with at least some grasp of practical reality. – attempts gauche friendliness. But Emily Bowker as Emma is a living nightmare in her self-designed asymmetric-chic outfits, pretentious abstract artworks and serene yogic poses. Her meditation and left-of-Corbyn love of the People does not stop her hissing disapproval at Dawn’s tight red dress, or delivering blistering condemnation of Alan’s clumsy paintings of his cat, Vince – Invincible (named after the aircraft carrier on which he was a cook).
We get a hint in the first act that Emily is in some sort of grief, from four years previously; but bravely, Betts does not allow her to solicit sympathy for a long time yet. She can’t even bear the St George’s flags on the houses outside in a World Cup year defacing “A beautiful street of 19c stone houses…I AM sympathetic, Oliver, towards the oppressed, but mindless patriotism!” . She is also “trying to move beyond sex”. Dawn, sensibly, isn’t.
The postman Alan , though, rapidly becomes one of the most beautiful characters of recent theatre. Boasting to Oliver about his wife’s hotness he says that when he first saw her naked he wept: the supposedly new-man southerner can’t quite take that. And when Alan talks of and shows his paintings – which are splendidly terrible – Emma’s vicious demolition of his work as she prates about how art should “reunify body and soul” and so forth, is torpedoed by his shy “when I paint I don’t feel so lonely”. Merit or no merit, he’s an artist and she’s a pretender. But he still cuts up his paintings, embarrassed. Brookes’ performance is splendid, nuanced, genuine: my only suggestion (and it was a preview at Bury I saw) is for director Christopher Harper to suggest he does a bit less of the maddening laugh in the first scenes. Conveying annoyingness without annoying the audience as well is a tricky ask.
The fate of Alan’s beloved cat becomes both comic and profoundly sad; in the second half, with good twists, we learn more about him and Dawn , about Oliver’s underlying nature (a lovely cynical concluion here) ; we may respect, to a reasonable degree, nasty Emma’s reason for sorrow. And as a portrait of flawed people in a Britain divided by class and also at war – there’s a painfully sharp line from Dawn about soldiers, which I won’t spoil – it becomes genuinely beautiful as well as sharply perceptive . Honour to Original Theatre and to Theatre Royal Bury, the producers. It’s a good long tour, into June. Catch!
tour dates on http://tinyurl.com/zxx76eg