Union Theatre, London – until 20 October 2018
Five people sit around a suburban living room over drinks and nibbles. It could be Abigail’s Party were it not for the fact that instead of debating whether or not we like Demis Roussos, we’re discussing Britain’s detachment from the European Union.
There’s some crisp writing in Julie Burchill and Jane Robins’ People Like Us which attempts to hold a mirror up to the nature of sophisticated north London book group intellectuals as surely as Mike Leigh skewered the Romford seventies’ suburbanites.
The play focuses on the rift between long-time socially cohered Londoners cleft by choosing different sides in the referendum. It’s a raw and real subject, and you can feel the slap of the splendidly contrarian columnist Burchill railing against the injustice of those who would challenge ‘democracy’, or who are self-righteously confident of their own superior intellect and attitude.
Although the authors aim for balance, much of the pro-European argument is lost by putting it in the mouth of a French woman living in Archway with her Jay Rayner-ish bon vivant partner (Kamaal Hussain, good) whose interest in Europe comes mostly from the neck of its wine bottles. Through a combination of stilted acting and impenetrable accent, Marine Andre loses the case for Remain: it would be better to rewrite this as a British character with strong Europhile leanings, Brexit is after all a British affair.
Among the other personalities, Northern lesbian Leave voter Frances authentically played by Sarah Toogood is the most rounded and gets some of the best lines. In a television version it would surely be Charlotte Riley, current star of Press on BBC1. That made me wonder how Press’ writer Mike Bartlett would have treated this story. Or James Graham, reputedly writing a Brexit play of his own.
The audience was almost as fascinating: instead of the usual bloggers and hacks, there were luminaries from the Telegraph and Spectator, and the entire run has sold out before first night with people sufficiently engaged to murmur approval at lines with which they agreed.
And therein lies the cleverness – Mike Leigh’s genius was to offer Abigail’s Party to audiences who roared with laughter without recognising themselves on the stage. Burchill and Robins may have pulled off the same trick.
Well worth looking for returns.