‘A courageous, partisan show to stage’: PEOPLE LIKE US – Union Theatre ★★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Union Theatre, London – until 20 October 2018

Like a long overdue gust of fresh air blown into the stale politicised bubble that has become London’s arts scene, People Like Us, a debut play from the writing partnership of Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, upends the politically correct canards that have stifled decent debate in the capital for years.

Set around an Islington book group of five friends, most of whose relationships date back to their Oxford years, the fault lines are very quickly exposed between the trio who with varying degrees of passion support Remain and their two Leave believing buddies.

Ralph, with a house in Provence and a younger (second) French wife Clemence are, unsurprisingly, Remainers and upping the ante even further, Clemence is employed by an EU agency. And then there’s Will, a nice enough novelist who, while he canvases for Remain, espousing the intellectual virtues of a London liberal, is still socially, if not politically, impaled on his very personal fence post.

Leading the charge of democracy are Stacey and Frances whose belief in the Brexit cause appalls Clemence and Ralph. Where Robins has constructed the play’s skeleton, it is Burchill who has fleshed out most of the dialogue and lashing out at London’s literati and chatterati, she takes no prisoners.

Ralph’s liberal tolerance is mocked by Frances, while Clemence argues tellingly and, on reflection chillingly, that it is “morally better to silence dissent”. There’s an interesting nod from Frances to Islamic complexities too, an angle that may have the more sensitive critics throwing their hands up in horror, but her sentiments, when viewed through the prism of Rochdale and Rotherham carry more of a resonance than many would be comfortable admitting.

Kamaal Hussain captures Ralph’s privileged entitlement as Marine Andre makes her impassioned UK debut as Clemence. The intensity behind Andre’s performance is sincere and credible – but there are moments when her strong and natural accent renders some of the text inaudible. Gemma-Germaine and Sarah Toogood capture the indignity of their position, ostracised by Ralph and Clemence – and while, for the sake of artistic licence all the character’s arguments are slightly lampooned and exaggerated by the writers, the two Leavers make a powerfully cogent case. Paul Giddings’ Will is a cracking turn that could easily have been inspired by Chicago’s Mr Cellophane.
The silencing and politically dehumanising of Leavers in London has been a recognisable trait of the last three years – and whilst the play is unquestionably a rough diamond that still needs work on both script and aspects of the staging too – for the most part the writers and producers are to be commended for taking their argument to the capital, the ideological heartland of the nation’s Remain constituency.
This is unquestionably a courageous, partisan show for the Union to stage – and there is as much thought put into the production as there is heart, with the programme alone containing more than six pages of essay and comment on Brexit. And if ever there was an example of fortune favouring the brave then this is it: the show has sold out for its entire run and deservedly so.
While People Like Us may be unusual fodder for a West End transfer, there is already talk of a run being staged in the nation’s North East. It would sit well in a TV treatment too.

Runs until 20th October – SOLD OUT
Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

Jonathan Baz on Twitter
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.
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Jonathan Baz on Twitter
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.