Albion

Bush Theatre, London

To misquote a phrase, wrapping yourself in the flag is perhaps the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Chris Thompson’s blisteringly topical new play, Albion, comes at a crucial time in the history of Britain and especially we `English’. Who do we think we are anymore?

It’s karaoke night in the Albion, an East End pub, typically seen as the home of white working class disaffection. More media cliché perhaps than reality, this is where Thompson’s cliché ends.

Because, although Albion carries echoes of other pub white working class dramas (Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads), British fascism (David Edgar’s Destiny) or laughter as weapon (Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians), Thompson uses karaoke to develop the narrative plausibly and ironically, allowing the audience a moment of familiarity before hitting it with views you’re unlikely to hear much on mainstream television.

Thompson is consciously exploring the unacceptable – white working-class (and blue-collar) supporters of the English Defence League (here called the EPA). It’s not nice, it’s not pretty but my goodness, with songs covering every popular variety from ballad (Delilah) to disco (It’s Raining Men – the latter sung dynamically by Natalie Casey’s disaffected social worker, scapegoated she believes, for keeping too much to the `politically correct’ agenda and not protecting a young charge from sexual grooming and abuse), it also makes for a terrific feel-good as well as discomfiting evening.

Add in an English-Pakistani gay couple finally divided by their political and cultural loyalties and our social worker triumphing through the appropriation of more acceptable language (the value of diversity, anybody?) to become mayor of Tower Hamlets and you have a sure-fit hit on your hands.

Thompson’s great achievement – and Ria Parry’s super-sharp production gives it every chance to shine and prickle – is to portray right-wing prejudice as the consequence of circumstance. Thompson was himself once a social worker- and it shows. His ability to show the human face of bigotry and alienation is as refreshing as Tony Clay’s Jayson, younger brother to Steve John Shepherd’s initially frightening EPA leader, Paul, is troublingly inadequate, with karaoke the only thing in his life. Enjoy but take note…

First published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2014