The Niceties

Eleanor Burgess
Giles Chiplin Productions, 23 Productions, Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre
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Zoe is an unfamiliar figure on the London stage. She is a young, articulate, justice campaigner in Eleanor Burgess’s impressive play The Niceties.

But Zoe’s conflict with her history teacher Janine (Janie Dee) at a prestigious American university will divide audiences. It certainly divided reviewers, a number of whom haggled about the side we took in that conflict during our journey back to central London.

If one test of a good play is the way it engages its audience long after they leave the theatre, then this one succeeded.

We first meet Zoe (Maronke Akinola) in the office of Janine, a liberal who supports Hilary Clinton. On the wall behind her desk are posters of Nelson Mandela, the Mexican rebel Zapata and the Polish trade union Solidarność. There is also a prominent framed picture of George Washington, the first President of the United States.

Zoe has things on her mind apart from the paper she has submitted on the American Revolution. There are the organisational tasks for protests against the visit to the university of Sandra Day O’Connor, lauded in many liberal quarters as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, but criticised by others for voting against minorities on all but two of the forty-one occasions dealing with ethnic minorities.

That will be one of many flashpoints at this meeting, which initially looks pleasant enough. After all, Janine is an amiable, reassuring teacher with lots of smiles and cosy, amusing anecdotes to encourage her student. Almost immediately, she tells Zoe she has made “excellent word choices”.

The problem is that Zoe’s paper argues that “a successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery”.

Janine regards that as heretical and unsupported by evidence. Trying to get Zoe to do more work on it, she reminds her that a good degree gets you places. She, for instance, is phoned up regularly by the State department for advice on foreign policy.

As their disagreement extends to other areas, Zoe grows increasingly impatient with Janine’s smug complacency.

Speaking about the meeting where Washington was appointed top general for the new American army, Janine says she “would give anything to be in that room. Wouldn’t you?”

Zoe says no, she wouldn’t, because she would only be there as a slave.

Even Janine’s attempts to persuade her that things have improved fall flat. When she points out the great stride forwards in getting Obama as the first black president, Zoe can only say, “yeah, we have our first black president. And we’re still getting lynched.”

Things become even more fraught when Zoe records and posts on social media a particularly difficult part of their conversation about racism that creates a campus storm threatening Janine’s tenure.

The characters are believable and in different ways sympathetic in this well-performed piece. The dialogue is fast, occasionally amusing and provocative.

The play importantly reflects the fractious liberal centre ground of politics now taking place in America and Europe, where restless new movements of protesters are growing increasingly angry at liberal reformers they feel have been incorporated into the establishment they should be fighting.

Things may not entirely match Zoe’s final words to Janine, but in them is the hope of a different world.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna