As Brexit remains headline news across the country, People Like Us, a new comedy from writers Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, examines how this polarisation of political opinion has cut a swathe through friendships and families.
Opening this week at London’s Union Theatre, the play is about the impact of Brexit upon the members of a suburban book group. I caught up with Jane Robins in the closing days of rehearsals for a brief conversation.
How much of the script is drawn from personal experience?
Some of it has happened to me – I was very publicly shamed on Facebook for instance when I posted some links to articles that were saying actually it wasn’t really so bad, referencing job gains that were being reported in the City of London since the referendum. I quickly found myself unfriended very publicly, there was a moralistic tone in the air and I learned (from other friends) that some people had formed the view: “we thought she was a nice person and now she turns out to be really bad”.
In the view of some of my friends, it was almost immoral to vote Leave and I’ve certainly experienced people wanting to keep me at arm’s length because of it.
Feeling a little sore, I was drawn to the first meeting of Leavers of London. I had seen on Twitter that a young woman, Lucy Harris, had posted something along the lines of: “Did you vote Leave and now feel a bit isolated? Come and meet up for a drink.” So I went along (it turned out I was the first to arrive that evening and I’ve since become great friends with Lucy) and lots of people turned up. Really bright, interesting people from all backgrounds, and on both the Left and the Right politically. A lot of them were (are) working in creative industries or in fields like teaching or in public services and commented on how they just were unable to say at work that they voted Leave.
There were lots of stories, individual stories, that people told about how difficult it was for them – and that’s how the idea for the play began. I’d lived in London most of my life and had never thought that something like this could happen. I thought we took it for granted that we trusted our friends and that we didn’t cut them off because of the way they had voted on something.
How did you and Julie Burchill find each other?
We first met on Facebook through a mutual friend and a posted article that both Julie and I had “liked”. From there, we became Facebook friends. When the idea came to me to write this play. I thought I could do it but that it would take me at least a couple of years and I just don’t have the time for that with my day job as a novelist. I’ve always admired Julie’s writing and her exuberance, the way that she provokes and challenges amaze me.
So I said to her: “I’m thinking of writing a play, can I come down to Brighton and talk to you about it?” She then invited me along to a lunch she was having with friends and as I walked into the bar of the Hotel Du Vin I think within 30 seconds I had asked her to be my co-author. She called for the champagne menu and it was the start, as they say, of a beautiful friendship.
I live in London, she lives in Brighton and over about 18 months we have worked very professionally – we didn’t see each other at all during the whole writing of the play. I’d already got everything mapped out in terms of the characters and the structure of the play and how I saw it. That’s the sort of stuff, especially structure, that Julie doesn’t enjoy. What she loves to do is dialogue.
And so I would write each scene in a rough way, doing some of the dialogue and basic mapping and then send it off to Julie and she would just wave her magic wand all over it, bring it to life and send it back to me for editing.
JB: What do you expect the reaction to the play to be when it opens in London next month?
JR: I genuinely have no idea at all. I think that Remainers could come to the play and really like it and think it’s very funny. Or there might be completely the opposite reaction because a lot of the jokes are about “people who go to the theatre”. We could’ve dug our own grave with that, I just don’t know.
Many scripts make fun of the chattering classes. We’ve done it because everything’s so deeply personal at the minute and I don’t know whether people are going to take it benignly and enjoy it, or get bristly.
Part of me thinks that the hard core “Remain community” are very touchy but it’s not that way and, to be fair, it’s not most people either. My sister voted Remain, as did my brother-in-law and half my family and they’ve enjoyed the play. I think it’s only a sliver of society who have become sort of hysterical, but it’s very hard now to know.
Above all, the play is about friendship. We’ve not gone into all those sort of, pros and cons of Brexit at great lengths. We could have done, but I think the pacing is all about democracy. And I believe that’s what a lot of Leavers think and a lot of Remainers just can’t see. There’s a blindness there and they don’t see why leaving the EU is important to so many people.
JB: Do you feel there’s a timeliness to the play with all that’s going on right now, as the Chequers furore leads into the parties’ conference season?
JR: Definitely! All the time in the process of writing the play and getting it put on, it felt enormously timely and you might think that you could have written something about Brexit and a year and two year after the boat it would no longer be that relevant but I think it’s more relevant than ever. Things haven’t died down at all, they’re still raging.
JB: Has it been a challenge to stage the play in London?
JB: Sasha Regan at the Union Theatre has been great, as has Ben de Wynter who is also directing. And the cast and creatives too, irrespective of their own personal views, are really putting their hearts into the production. It’s extraordinarily exciting!
JB: What do you hope the play will achieve?
JR: A good night out. I think the number one duty is for people to come and have a great time and to laugh.
People Like Us runs at the Union Theatre from October 2nd to the 20th. For tickets, book here.