Monday, 22 September 2014

Theatre review: Albion

Former social worker Chris Thompson only had his first play Carthage staged earlier this year, but with the second he's already experimenting with form in a way many more experienced playwrights rarely do. Inspired by an image from a far-right rally in which a rainbow flag was among the banners, Albion looks at the insidious ways extremists make their ideas seem more palatable. Jayson (Tony Clay) runs the karaoke at his brother's pub, The Albion, in Tower Hamlets. As well as being the landlord, Paul (Steve John Shepherd) is the leader of a right-wing party, the English Protection Army. They're seen as racist thugs by the media, and ever since his soldier sister Poppy (Nicola Harrison) was killed in Afghanistan, the ranks have been harder to control - especially his deputy Kyle, who was Poppy's boyfriend. But he himself is part of Paul's plan to make the EPA look inclusive: Kyle (Delroy Atkinson) is black; and Jayson is openly gay.

Meanwhile, a different face of extremism is catching the public's imagination: An ex-social worker scapegoated when an Asian gang raped white girls without being detected, Christine (Natalie Casey) is perfecting a racist message wrapped up in an inoffensive, mumsy image.

The subject matter is dark, so perhaps what's most unusual about Albion is how fun it is. The karaoke nights that Jayson lives for are the basis for the entire structure of the show. Each scene is themed around a popular song, sometimes merely playing quietly in the background. But most of the time the cast sing them - sometimes as straightforward karaoke, sometimes as big musical numbers, like an early rendition of "Seven Nation Army" that sets out the show's stall in no uncertain terms. Elsewhere the songs serve as punctuation, or even as dialogue, Casey and Shepherd taking on "Don't Leave Me This Way" in a scene that resembles nothing so much as a twisted rom-com.

The whole cast throw themselves into the show's high concept, but most impressive is Clay, as Jayson proves himself the heart of the story. Not very bright, so essentially good-natured but catastrophically easily led, his being open about his sexuality is a badge of honour for the EPA who can use it to claim they're an inclusive organisation; what he can't be open about is the fact that he's been seeing, and possibly falling for, a Muslim, Aashir (The EnsembleTM's Dharmesh Patel.)

What's particularly refreshing about Jayson is that he's a gay character in a drama who's characterised by a lot more than his sexuality; being gay is one element of him but equally important are his being something of an idiot, a mixed-up character alternately tender and quite violent, and someone who uses his karaoke fixation as a way to define himself, because looking at anything else about himself would be too much for him to handle. It's a level of character development gay characters rarely get even in "gay" theatre, let alone a play whose primary focus is elsewhere. Aash is perhaps not quite as vividly drawn, but it is interesting to see him become slightly more effeminate as he starts to spend time around the EPA, using camp as a form of aggression.

Ria Parry's production fully captures the audacity of Thompson's play, which takes the truism that treating people with repellent views as monsters makes us unable to understand them, and goes a step further. By making us actually enjoy these people's company for a couple of hours Albion highlights the frighteningly narrow divide between most people and those with extremist, violent views. It's just a shame Thompson succumbs to a nasty case of Multiple Ending Syndrome that lessens the impact and drags the evening out, but that aside this is a terrifically ambitious marriage of style and subject matter that rarely puts a foot wrong until then.

Albion by Chris Thompson is booking until the 25th of October at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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