Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The People Next Door

Henry Adams
Theatre Royal Stratford East
(2003)

I think we all deserve a treat. It's been a long, hot summer, everyone has been off at the Edinburgh Festival, and the only histrionic fiction staged for our delectation has been the Hutton Enquiry. Happily, we can now all have that special treat, because Henry Adams's Fringe First Award-Winning play has transferred from the Traverse to the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

This is a very fine piece of writing from the Caithness-born playwright, Henry Adams. Irvine Welsh; our only renowned Scottish playwright! Time to shove over, Irvine, and make way for the next generation of talent. If this play were made for the big screen it should outrun Trainspotting and canter past the winning post with ease. It's strengths lie in its wit, its characterisation and its bizarre and topical plot. It is also belly-laughter funny. It is so satisfying to reel with laughter at some of those things we fear most.

The People Next Door deals in topicalities and stands out particularly in Scottish playwriting simply by putting a hitherto neglected minority group of black and Asian immigrants on the stage. Ipso facto it's got everything going for it.

Nigel is a half Pakistani whose father did a runner when his Scottish mother was pregnant. In his daydreams he is Salim, an ultra hip, super cool guy with considerable street-cred and the lingo to prove it. In everyday reality, he lives in a tenement on disability allowance having been diagnosed with a mental disorder. He might have a borderline personality but Nigel is warm, caring, savvy and just crazy enough to have no inhibitions about saying what he thinks. In other words he is utterly loveable.

His only friends are Mrs Mac, the old Scottish widow upstairs, and a black teenager, about as smart as they come, with an unfortunate family background. Nigel suffers from chronic anxiety, and if he thinks he is paranoid a man is just about to walk into his life to show him he's not nearly paranoid enough.

Enter Phil, a bent copper with stashes of drugs in every pocket and up his nose, and a psychosis Freud would have salivated to get onto his couch. Phil bursts into Nigel's life because he has discovered that the long-lost half-brother, the golden boy, Karim, has become an international terrorist on the wanted list of every intelligence agency in the Western Hemisphere and Phil intends to show the boys in the Special Branch that the average copper, himself in particular, is just as smart as they are.

Phil has a cunning plan and Nigel is the fulcrum. Not only should Nigel find the whereabouts of the brother he has only met once, but he should also join up with the local Mosque, wearing a wire, and lead Phil to the bust of a lifetime, of which every copper dreams.

Phil is a nutter but in this character we see reflected the ignorance we all bear concerning the ethnic minorities in our communities. Phil is not very good a maths, and his sums pertain to the following: Muslim (terrorist) + Mosque (Al Quaida boot camp) = find the scum, kill the scum, get promotion and kudos that satisfy a huge, voracious ego. And in order to prove his mathematical equation correct, and satisfy his arrogance, he will bully, beat, cajole and even blackmail Nigel into doing his will.

This might seem like heavy fare, and indeed it has pleasing earnestness, a culturally political dimension that we all need to take into account, not only in days of terrorist threats, but because we live in a multicultural society and ignorance is our major problem, not the threat of terrorism. But Henry Adams can show us the way forward in dark and frightening times. He has a sense of humour that puts it all into perspective.

This is genuinely a topical play, with a serious political statement to make, if, like I do, you see the personal as political. But it is delivered to us with a comedy that bleeds seamlessly on occasion into farce and satire. And I'm very happy that this transferred from the Traverse in Edinburgh to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. If Joan Littlewood, who took over this theatre in the fifties and made it famous as a place for excellent, entertaining theatre replete with political commentary, were alive to see this performance, she would be chuffed to bits to see this show in her theatre. It has all the tragedy of victimisation, of ignorance, but informs us by making us laugh. Just like her most famous piece, Oh! What a Lovely War.

Littlewood trained her actors in excellence and this cast would do her company justice. Paul Albertson, as the bent copper, tackles a very difficult role, as the ultimate satire of the stereotypical hard man, giving voice to such hilarious statements that make us rock in our seats, and he does it without falling into the trap of playing for comedy. He gives us the genuine article and makes us laugh, and, perhaps fear, all on our own and all the more. But, when the cards are dealt the poker player with the royal flush has to Fraser Ayres. Accolades to you, my main man (to steal street-cred lingo appropriate to the play).

Nigel is the type of role of which that many actors dream. It is complex, it is funny, it is tragic. It has depth, but it also needs technique. It's a showcase role to die for. Fraser Ayres has given us a Nigel so loveable; an anxious young man, so anxious he can't stay still, and the physicality Ayres has developed for this character is utterly superb.

Way to go Fraser! I'm sick of classically-trained actors who think theatre is only about how you deliver the words and ignoring the full scope of physical potential. And I seriously hope you don't get too noticed and get a role in Eastenders, where you can only act from the neck up. You bring something very special and necessary to our British stage.

The Theatre Royal Stratford East might seem to many people to be a bit off the beaten track, and while it does a good job as a theatre that serves the local community, you should all get down there. It is just five minutes walk from Stratford station, serviced by the Central line, the Jubilee line and the Docklands Light Railway. So, you really have no excuse. Don't go to the stuffy old West End because it seems easy to travel there. Come up to our theatre in Stratford and see the very best.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher