When the National earlier this year premiered Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, its vibrant, sometimes scandalous and poignant portrait of four generations of British immigration to the East End drew some howls of protest. One of the loudest protestors was an unknown Bethnal Green playwright, who claimed that the play “tries to mask its ugly prejudices behind claptrap, cheap humour and tired stereotypes”.
Now, in giving house room to Hanif Kureishi’s own stage version of his 1995 novel The Black Album, the National may be trying to show a view of some of the failures of attempts at assimilation from inside the racial fence, but seems to me to be bizarrely more full of claptrap, cheap humour and tired stereotypes than Bean’s play could ever be accused of.
Theatre, of course, has to be more show than tell - but in filleting his own novel into 13 scenes across two acts, Kureishi reduces his story of one young man’s rite of passage, as he heads from Sevenoaks to college in late eighties London, into a relentless, argumentative narrative about the political and philosophical questions that he is trying to make sense of. These particularly revolve around his community’s reaction to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a copy of which is burnt on stage in one of the only really authentically chilling moments in the play.
“We will fight for our people who are being tortured anywhere - in Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir, East End!”, says Riaz, who leads the fundamentalist Muslim group into which Jonathan Bonnici’s young student Shahid is conscripted. A pity he won’t fight for us, the audience, though, being tortured to watch this clunky, impotent play, when it should have been an important one instead.
There are far too few opportunities for Asian voices to be heard on our stages than to have them squandered in this way. There are bracing issues at stake, but they are too crudely and poorly dramatised to engage or make us care about them. Matters are not helped by Jatinder Verma’s clumsy production, played out on a three-walled set by Tim Hatley that may be built for touring but doesn’t make for sufficiently specific demarcations between locations, notwithstanding Jvan Morandi’s video projections. The final coda, too, which projects the action forward to events of a more recent resonance, is also mysteriously botched. The result is something far more muted than it could have been.