People Like Us
Julie Burchill and Jane Robins
Sasha Regan, Andrew Williams, Hilary and Stuart Williams
This latest theatrical response to Brexit doesn’t argue the case for or against. Unlike the vast majority of Brits who work in the arts, first time dramatists Burchill and Robins identify as Leavers. Their play is a response to the disapproval that produces in certain circles, the way friends have been divided by Brexit decisions, which they explore through the members of a London book group.
Holly Best’s set is a good guide to what you are in for: a Barcelona chair, a plump leather sofa, wine rack, oriental rugs underfoot, a cluster of copper lights overhead, books on sculpture on the coffee table, a cushion embroidered with “Ginsberg is God,” while another says “Art”. What a promise of pretention; it’s probably Islington, certainly the chattering classes.
I’ve never joined a book group but at only five members this seems a small one, friends connected by past Oxbridge contact, but making a microcosm of opposing opinion.
Host big-haired and bearded Ralph (Kamaal Hussain) is a brand-manager who lapses into advertising language. He describes his reaction to Brexit as “grief, with a top-note of despair.” Divorced, he’s still friends with his first wife and now married to Clemence (Marine Andre), an opinionated French woman who works for an EU organisation. She is very opinionated and talks in an irritating high twitter. They have a house in France as well as their London home and are Remainers. Ralph has run the group for five years but now doesn’t feel it’s quite right: “it’s more vicious, like family.”
His visitors are elegant Stacey (Gemma-Germane), with whom Ralph seems to have had a fling at university, and northerner Frances (Sarah Toogood), who lives with her but has another lesbian lover up north in Hebden Bridge. They’ve been drinking on the way and, to Clemence’s scorn, Frances is already sozzled. This pair are firm Leavers.
Last to arrive is mild, liberal-minded Will (Paul Giddings), a would-be novelist to whom the others are condescending: has he had yet another rejection slip? He’s a natural Remainer but tries to see both sides. “Of all our possessions, friends are the most precious,” is his line.
But how far does friendship go? Mention of Brexit is supposed to be banned, but discussion of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley doesn’t get very far before things start to disintegrate.
At first, Ben de Wynter’s production seems to be setting things up as broad satire on the edge of comic caricature, sending up people you wouldn’t want to spend time with, but, when it begins to feel as though it is not just the characters who think they are so clever but the writers as well, it seems less funny, though there is committed playing from the whole cast.
It is not all brittle vindictiveness. Lover Lucy up in Hebden Bridge is a Remainer but likes the way Frances’s support for leaving has made her more positive. Indeed, Brexit has increased general political awareness.
Here we have the intelligentsia rather than the working-class treating people as class traitors. They think themselves progressive; others call them elitist. Though people pay lip service to tolerance, here we have Clemence imposing a choice between “your friends and me” and new lines drawn.
This is much more a picture of intolerant upper middle class wankers than specifically about Brexit; you can’t help but feel the same rifts could occur over differences about much more petty things.
Burchill and Robins don’t explore why their characters take sides so strongly. They simply make their Remainers people you wouldn’t not want to stay with and their Leavers just a little more likeable—and you can be pretty sure that the “people like us” in the audience will recognise people they know but not themselves.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton