Testing the Echo

David Edgar
Out of Joint
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Production photo

This is not what you might call an ‘easy’ play. Instead of a single narrative there are several strands – several stories all progressing at the same time, and David Edgar has changed his style of presentation to follow the modern trend of a more cinematic approach with a large screen showing not only video pictures emphasising the narratives, but ‘bloggers’ are also giving their opinions on the issues being discussed and argued over.

There are eight actors playing twenty four parts between them and they often speak in the native tongue of their character, having to convey meaning by expression and action alone – an actor’s life is not an easy one! Additionally there are sixty-eight scenes changed simply by the swift re-arrangement of several chairs and a table, and director Matthew Dunster has brilliantly accomplished the complications of the numerous entrances and exits, commenting that it was rather like arranging a dance sequence. The whole show is very fast paced and lasts only a little over an hour and a half.

Having stressed the complications, this does not apply to the audience, who watched with rapt attention - not because it was difficult to understand, but I felt they were hardly daring to breathe in case they missed anything.

The theme is ‘Britishness’, and a group of assorted nationalities are attending a class which they hope will enable them to pass the Citizen Test and become British citizens – but what exactly is Britishness? Can you define it? Ask fifty different people and you would get fifty different answers. What should it be necessary to learn in order to become a British citizen? Suggestions range from the obvious ‘learning to speak English’ to the ridiculous ‘you should not fail to try out the famous echo in the Reading Room of the British Library’.

Although fictitious, the characters are well researched from the stories and interviews with many of the immigrants attending such classes, and they all have different reasons for wanting to become true British citizens. Ukrainian Tetyana (Kirsty Bushell) is trying to assert independence to escape from the oppression of her Muslim husband, while Mahmood (Sushil Chudesama) only wants to be able to return to Pakistan without being thrown into jail. Conflict is cause by Sirine Saba’s Egyptian Nasim, who refuses to compromise the rules of her strict Muslim religion to the extent of refusing to accept a picture of a sausage. Teacher Emma (Teresa Banham) tries hard to see every point of view, particularly difficult at a dinner party where the guests arrogantly give their opinions from the security of their affluent lifestyles.

This is a totally engrossing and fascinating play, superbly performed, with the arguments raging to and fro and the comedy supplied mostly by the conflicting notions of the British way of life and some of the ridiculous definitions, as well as some of the more absurd questions in the citizen test. In the final scene everyone gives their idea of what they believe to be British.. “Tradition, rolling back through the centuries”, “God’s law at the very heart of civic life” and the inconsistent “Our tolerance is what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it or don’t come here.”

The final word “Although ” goes to teacher Emma. The arguments and discussions will go on and on, and will any conclusions ever be reached?

Touring to Manchester, Oxford, Bury St. Edmunds, Tricycle Theatre London, Birmingham

Kevin Catchpole reviewed this production at Salisbury Playhouse and Philip Fisher saw it at the Tricycle

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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