England People Very Nice, Burnt by the Sun and King Lear all deal with power, powerlessness and the abuse of power. All three are in the broadest sense political plays, although quite without the crude didactics of Shaw or Hare. Although very unequal in achievement, together they show how healthy and serious British theatre is today - ambitious, varied and voraciously imaginative.
England People Very Nice is a fast, energetic romp through the history of immigration in this country. It is set in an asylum seekers' detention centre, where a cast of multi-racial inmates is staging a play they have devised together. Although this sounds off-puttingly earnest, the detention centre works surprisingly well as a setting for poignant comedy.
Despite the angry reception given to this production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, I thought it sounded promising, partly because it was written by Richard Bean, the author (among much else) of The English Game, a particularly independent and spirited drama about cricket and multiculturalism, and mainly because so many prominent people have said how disgusted they are by England People Very Nice's offensive racial stereotypes. It is curious that the bien pensants insist that theatre should be transgressive, yet when it is, they don't like it. And where the bien pensants are shocked, there might well be good theatre.
Several negative stereotypes do appear, it's true, such as the pig-ignorant bog-Irish family in which a girl is giving birth to her brother's child while he imagines that the Pope is the name of a racehorse. However, there are plenty of sentimentally positive stereotypes, too. Besides, what is wrong with stereotypes? When we approve of stereotypes we call them archetypes and drama is full of them, as in King Lear. What's actually wrong with this play is something different. It is not clear what Bean is trying to achieve and despite a wonderfully rich production and some beautiful singing, the play doesn't either challenge or move.