“They killed your sister. They took over your karaoke night”
Chris Thompson had a big success with his first play Carthage at the Finborough Theatre which was a… WHY WHY WHY DELILAH. And now his follow-up play Albion has opened at the Bush…. SWING IT SHAKE IT MOVE IT MAKE IT WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE. It’s a bit of a challenging work as it plays with traditional structure to incorporate the fine art of karaoke as a storytelling device…HERE COMES THE HOTSTEPPER, MURDERER…(well, sometimes, and then sometimes it is just karaoke)…NAA NANANANAA NANANANAA NANANAA NANANAA NANANANAAA into its tale of how an extremist right-wing group takes root in an East End boozer.
In an interview about the show, dramaturg Rob Drummer speaks of how “the rise of the far right needs to be understood now more than ever” but it is never abundantly clear how this chosen format is an appropriate or effective one to enable such understanding. As you can see from the opening paragraph, it can be a little disarming to have characters break out into song in the middle of conversations, especially when there is a tenuous link at best but more frustrating is the lack of consistency in the way in which music is used. The interpolation of ‘The Rose’ into a key scene is a genuinely moving moment and with its verses scattered through the company, ‘Seven Nation Army’ becomes a brutally effective rallying call.
But more often, the songs get in the way as they break any sort of dramatic tension that the writing has developed as we’re forced to sit through gritted-teeth renditions of songs from Survivor to the Spice Girls with performances that assumedly pay lip service to the quality of your average karaoke night. And it’s a real shame as Thompson’s writing touches on a number of burning hot issues like English vs British national identity, beheadings in warzones, the rise of parties like UK*P beyond what might be considered its natural constituency, even the enduring popularity of glorified karaoke shows like The X Factor which has just returned to our screens. But these are all sacrificed for the need to shoehorn in another song.
Thus the feeling is largely one of unexplored potential. The notion of the English Protection Army is fascinating as though it is led by Steve John Shepherd’s fervent Paul who is white and straight, his right hand men are his gay brother – a nervy Tony Clay – and a second-generation Jamaican – a strong-voiced Delroy Atkinson. But unlike in Anders Lustgarten’s A Day At The Racists, this idea of the diversity of right-wing membership is never really interrogated. Another strand of a disgraced social worker rising to run for mayorship – a shrill Natalie Casey – is scarcely credible and frustratingly underworked and the controversial community centre that sparks off much of the furore of the play is utterly forgotten by the second act