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My Country; A Work in Progress review at National Theatre, London – ‘puzzling and patronising’

A scene from My Country: A Work in Progress at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The National Theatre’s response to Brexit, My Country; A Work in Progress, feels like something commissioned in a panic in the dazed days after the referendum.

Rufus Norris sent a team of interviewers out around the country to speak to people about their fears, hopes, what it is to be British, and how and why they voted. The resulting testimonials have been woven together by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and staged by Norris, the interviewees’ words placed in the mouths of Penny Layden’s Britannia and the embodiments of different UK regions and nations – Caledonia, the East Midlands, the South West, and so on.

The cast of seven hold up photos of the people whose words they are speaking, mimicking their speech patterns and accents. We occasionally hear from Boris, Nigel and co, too (Layden does a decent BoJo impersonation).

The actors go about things with gusto but the production strikes a lot of odd notes. Much of the humour comes from watching a grown man speaking the words of a 13-year old or at the expense of people’s occasionally tangled thinking. There’s a baffling sequence where the ‘regions’ engage in a kind of dance-off. And the poetry, well, the least said about that the better.

Though well-intentioned, the whole thing feels patronising. It uses regional stereotypes to get laughs (Wales is good at singing obvs, the North East is a bit gobby) and basically feels like a belated attempt to put a sticking plaster on a gushing wound.

Worse still, and more worrying, it leaves you feeling as if the National Theatre of Great Britain has only just woken up to the idea that the UK is multitudinous and complicated, and that there are huge swathes of people whose experiences are not reflected on its stages.

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The National Theatre's panicky and oddly executed post-mortem attempt to diagnose a country’s ills, post-Brexit