Hitting the Boundaries of Polite Society

A new play, The English Game, brings social issues alive by creating characters, not mouthpieces

In looking for a powerful theatrical experience, a new state-of-the-nation play is usually not a good place to start. The risk of being bored by an evening of earnest political orthodoxy is too high to ignore. The English Game, at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, is a play which certainly falls into this category, being about multicultural diversity and social division. However, it is outstandingly, surprisingly good. Watching it was precisely the kind of experience, different from anything film or TV can provide, that theatre ought to offer and so rarely does. I hope, following its tour of the provinces, it will open again soon.

The drama takes place on a Sunday afternoon, when a team of amateur cricketers gather somewhere in greater London for one of their matches. They call themselves The Nightwatchmen — which, as I found out later, is a cricketing term, meaning a lower-order batsman who comes in to bat higher up the order than usual near the end of the day’s play. His job is to remain in until close of play (and hence overnight) to protect the better batsmen from going out in what may be a period of tiredness, so they can be at their best the next day. The team’s name suggests a very English self-deprecation, but — given the play’s concerns – it also suggests something about what is happening to Englishness itself.

It opens with a powerfully English set, which instantly creates a multivalent mood; with birdsong and a few cuckoo calls in the background, we see a wide, warm, sunlit expanse of green parkland underneath a clear sky. This idyll is blighted by a few unhealthy looking shrubs, ill-kept grass, the vandalised remains of a pavilion and a large orange litter bin. There is a neat heap, centrally placed, of dog poo. A very English looking man of about 60 comes in, wearing shorts, sandals and a battered straw hat, with support bandages on his knees, carrying a cricket bag and a deck chair. Noticing the poo, he sticks a feather in it and goes out to a camper van offstage, to fetch his old father to watch the game from the deckchair, and then to set out the tea.

This is the scene of the entire action, at the side of an unseen pitch. Gradually, the rest of the team appears, to tease each other, reveal themselves and play; knowledge of cricket is not essential. They are a hugely mixed bunch — a rich old rock star, a miserable journalist, a plumber, a black man from the British Council, a gay Hindu, the old man’s grandson, Ruben, a vicar-GP and the team’s newcomer, a fascist telecoms worker called Reg. There are no Muslims; like women, they are conspicuous by their absence, but (unlike women) are well represented on the invisible team.

The players have a mannered and jokey camaraderie; clearly they know each other well and, for all their many differences, have a remarkable, if fragile sense of solidarity — if only for the duration of the game. But the play is, in large part, about the divisions between them and the strains imposed by diversity on English tolerance; even the myth of cricket is no longer powerful enough to bind these men. Nor can the neo-Nazi nastiness of Reg quite unite them against him.

These themes could have been very leaden. But the playwright, Richard Bean, treats them with great wit and humour, as well as with illuminating and moving gravity. He seems to be free of didactic tendencies, and he makes each character an individual, rather than a mouthpiece, as is so often the way in writers such as, say, David Hare. Although there is huge ambiguity about the players’ disputes and moods, it is unclear which side the audience is supposed to take.

In the case of Will, however, the pleasant, liberal-seeming man who comes in first, I suspect we are supposed to disapprove. Asked about his three eldest children, he replies dismissively with a reference to courses such as media studies at Loughborough: “None of them have been taught how to think, and consequently all three of them are morally illiterate. The only thing any of them will be able to do is get a job… My children seem to accept, unquestioningly, that all Israelis are Nazis; America is evil, obviously; Hamas are…” Here he’s interrupted, but goes on “I don’t mind if they do crack, get pregnant, drop out, but to end up terminally credulous breaks my heart”.

I found myself rather agreeing with this, but since Will says it, unforgivably, in front of his youngest child, who is understandably upset, perhaps I wasn’t supposed to. Later, Will says some unacceptable things about “sexually frustrated Yorkshiremen of a Wahhabi Sunni persuasion”, along with some home truths about English/British self-hatred and Islamist contempt for the infidel. Theo, the loveable GP (who is about to retire to France where he will renounce cricket to “fit in”), is profoundly upset. “Will, Will, Will,” he protests, while some of the others laugh, “what’s happened to tolerance?” “You’re the one leaving the country,” Will replies acidly. These questions are not made dishonestly simple, and audiences can conclude what it will.

Another new state-of-the-nation play, Shelagh Stephenson’s The Long Road, at the Soho Theatre, deals with the aftermath of a teenager’s stabbing by a young girl. His family struggles with grief and rage, and the mother and remaining son confront the murderess. Beautifully performed, and largely plausible, it still felt like a well-written handbook on restorative justice. The long road is the one to forgiveness and understanding, and it’s made clear that it is the road one should take. There’s something didactic and impersonal about the play; it showed, unlike The English Game, how difficult and rare it is to find the artistic alchemy which turns social issues into theatre.

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