This is the play about which the National Theatre’s Nicholas Hytner said he felt as if he was treading on eggshells. And judging by the complaints accusing Richard Bean of writing a racist play, you can see why.
For the complainants, some of whom are today due to meet Hytner to deliver their grievances, Bean’s crime appears to have been to use racial and cultural stereotypes for his history lesson on immigration in Bethnal Green. On top of which, Hytner’s production glories in old fashioned East End rude irreverence and sets much of the action against Pete Bishop’s Pythonesque animation.
The influx of humanity begins with the French Huguenots’ arrival in 17th-century Spitalfields and ends nearly three hours later in the 21st century with second and third generation Muslims sitting at the feet of an Abu Hamza-type imam, who gives a sermon about the evils of “Jew York”.
And in between the Bangladeshis and the Huguenots are the Irish, represented mainly by the incestuous Houlihan family, who are eventually followed by the arrival of Jewish refugees from Russia who, while dancing the hora, break into a song whose chorus is “Oy vey! Oy vey!”. So you can see how one or two people might take exception.
Yet this romp is much more nuanced than it at first appears. The whole carry-on is framed as a play-within-a-play, in which modern-day asylum-seekers are being educated about how England became a liberal democracy.
And in his main narrative, Bean reveals common themes that connect each community. Being blamed for the housing shortage is a running joke. But it also emerges that each wave of migrants arrives with the intention to integrate with the white English mostly represented by the play’s one constant, an East End pub run by bawdy Ida (Sophie Stanton).
Even the Jewish anarchists, who attack their own establishment by eating bacon sandwiches on Yom Kippur outside synagogues, have an objective (to unite Irish dockers with Jewish tailors) that is, at heart, integrationist. If Bean has a target, it is those who reject integration, whether English xenophobes or Muslim militants.
And it is here where I suspect England People Very Nice has caused most offence. Towards the end of the play the views of militant Islamists are compared to those of Barry, a member of the BNP — and guess whose views come across as the more moderate.
“After 9/11, and today [he’s taking about the tube bombings] skin colour is irrelevant,” declares Barry. “Culture. That’s where the battle is.”
This is provocative stuff even in a comedy whose romantic cure for a fractured society is love — or more accurately sex — between Muslim Benny (a terrific Rudi Dharmalingham) and his true love, the half-Irish, half-Jewish Deborah, whose children will, in some unspecified cockamamie act of salvation, somehow save the day.
If I have a gripe, it’s that the repeating motif of two lovers reaching across each era’s divide never delivers the heart the play needs. But it is in its refreshingly un-PC politics where the power of this play lies. And Bean and Hytner have shown bravery in writing and staging it.