Can anyone remember the time before Brexit? You’re not alone. Most artistic responses, given the overwhelmingly pro-Remain stance across the sector, have focused on the most negative aspects of the whole thing. So it’s not at all unreasonable to show a piece from a pair of pro-Brexit writers (novelist Julie Burchill & journalist/novelist Jane Robins) – what they’ve come up with, however, is possibly one of the least considered pieces of programming in London in recent times. Really, the title says it all: “People Like Us“. Without seeing a scene it’s an ‘us & them’ scenario – and this is from the side that ‘won’! The programme notes don’t inspire much confidence either; the tone is condescending from the off, displaying a disturbing lack of humanity (and ability to write coherently).
The play revolves around a North London book group, made up of three Remain (Ralph, Clemence & Will) and two Leave (Stacey & Frances). We first meet them before 23 June, attempting to discuss The Talented Mr Ripley but always managing to stray into Brexit at any given opportunity. Most of them have been friends for a considerable amount of time, so can take a certain kind of debate (and know what each other are like) but Clemence, Ralph’s French partner, is much newer and is regularly made to feel like an outsider by Stacey in particular. In the wake of so-called “Freedom Day”, she reassesses recent interactions with the two women and comes to a more worrying conclusion – she feels that Stacey & Frances are xenophobic, and from now on it’s them or her. Ralph takes this ultimatum in his stride, but this isn’t the last they’ll see of Stacey & Frances…
It’s hard to know where to start. I think I’d like to highlight the play’s complete lack of relevance, on several fronts. Firstly, it is rather out of date. I’m not sure when exactly it was written, but the situation has aged very quickly – to quote Susannah Clapp’s review of Carol Ann Duffy’s anti-Brexit play My Country: A Work in Progress (helpfully included in Julie Burchill’s programme notes), “it is old hat”. Too much is now known about the negative impact of Brexit, derided and written off as ‘Project Fear’, to really warrant this style of debate – or attempt to generate sympathy for Leave supporters who have been “shunned”. It’s actually quite laughable that this play sees the Remain camp outnumber Leave (three to two); have Burchill and Robins forgotten the referendum result?
The play also says nothing new about the pro-Brexit side of the debate. I’d genuinely be interested to see something that explores what will personally benefit people from this decision, as the repetitive ‘patriotic’ bollocks does nothing for me; I know that I will be personally stripped of the right to freedom of movement, and will have to fork out a considerable amount more for everyday items or online orders if we fail to find a workable set of trade deals. I will be out of pocket and most likely have less of an opportunity to experience new cultures and countries. But that doesn’t matter, according to Burchill and Robins, as their characters celebrate getting sovereignty back and constantly toast to Shakespeare!
People Like Us is dangerously out of touch, and will be completely unrelatable to the many. A middle class north London book group is hardly the voice of the people, is it? Whichever way you voted. It’s based on the premise that two post-menopausal women made friends thanks to the vote and are comfortable in their lives, so fuck those of us with our lives ahead of us. The play also seems to glorify the resurgence of casual xenophobia and racism, as they try to seriously suggest that Stacey’s treatment of Clemence suddenly becomes xenophobic after the referendum result (and I’m trying to block out the part touching on Islamophobia from my memory). Stacey vs. Clemence, to me, is clearly also the writers projecting their jealousy of young, educated women – oh yes, women can be misogynists too.
As well as the arguments being repetitive and old hat, it’s painfully long and not particularly well structured. It would make more sense to either have one act dedicated to the pre-referendum events, followed by a post-referendum second act, or a very short pre-vote section and then run straight through with the rest showing what happened afterwards. As it is, about two thirds of the first half are pre-referendum followed by an awkward post-result sequence prior to the interval. I’d also rethink the monologues each character is given; the repetition in these smacks of them being thrown in to make the writers look like they know what they’re doing. The scene transitions are also unnecessarily long, which is far from ideal in the furnace that is the Union Theatre auditorium.
Sadly, the performances aren’t particularly convincing – but I suspect this is largely to do with the material the cast have had to work from. The best thing about the play (aside from the end) has to be Holly Best’s set design, turning the stage into a pair of cosy & homely living spaces.
My verdict? A poorly conceived play and a questionable piece of programming, it’s as divisive & snobbish as the title suggests – definitely one to forget.
People Like Us runs at the Union Theatre until 20 October 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.