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My Country: A Work In Progress at Theatre Royal Stratford East

My Country, Penny Layden (Britannia) and the company by Sarah Lee
My Country, Penny Layden (Britannia) and the company by Sarah Lee

It’s only been a year, but the effects of the Brexit referendum are still being felt by the country. In fact, whatever your opinion of the outcome, Brexit is going to drag on for years to come. So, you might think this is an opportune time for the National Theatre to go on tour with their Brexit play My Country; a work in progress which I caught at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

June 2016 and Britannia (Penny Layden) has called an emergency meeting of the six parts of the United Kingdom – Caledonia (Stuart McQuarrie), The North East (Laura Elphinstone), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke), Cymru (Christian Patterson), The East Midlands (Seema Bowri) and the South West (Adam Ewan) – to discuss the Brexit referendum. Britannia represents Westminster and the ruling heart of England and the other parts represent various people within their respective geographic zones. The regions discuss their area’s thoughts on the UK, the EU in general and the referendum in particular, while Britannia tries to keep order and balance the views of the various, at times, almost combative regions. As the result of the referendum comes in, the reactions flow with them and it is left to Britannia once more to try and make sense of things.

I have to say, My Country; a work in progress struck me as a fascinating idea. Each of the regions quotes verbatim from genuine interviews with people from their respective area, with linking material written by Carol Ann Duffy. And, it sort of works. It is quite fascinating to hear the genuine words of real people. And it was interesting that even a year on, some of the comments caused verbal reactions from the audience – I got the feeling Stratford was a ‘Remain’ area – so the effects of the referendum campaign are still just below the surface for many people. Initially, I was irritated with what felt like stereotyping of the regions – particularly the North East – as they were introduced, but once the ‘real’ people started speaking I felt the play picked up considerably. And I have to say that Penny Layden as Britannia did a first rate job – with one of the best impressions of Boris Johnson I’ve ever seen – voicing the words of the major political players. However, it did feel wrong that, Britannia only represented the words of Westminster and various areas – the North West and the South East in particular – were missing. My other, final negative about the play is, as already mentioned, the effects of the referendum and its result are still being felt and I believe that the producers have missed an opportunity to update it from the original production – particularly as the play is subtitled a work in progress.

However, I have to say that My Country; a work in progress was a really interesting night’s theatre. Right from the start – as the ‘real’ voices began – all the memories of that divisive period of the UK’s history came flooding back. Project ‘Fear’, the NHS bus, Farage, Cameron, Gove, Boris, and all the harm they did before leaving straight after the result, My Country: a work in progress brought all these back to me in vivid colour.

But, it was more than just these elements. There was the ex-policeman who couldn’t understand why someone on benefits received more than he earned walking the beat. The working class school boy looking at the privileged life of pupils from a nearby private school. The Northern Irish boy struggling with his sexuality. And, all the way through, there was this continuous undercurrent of the EU being the scapegoat for everything that was not right with the UK.

Director Rufus Norris keeps things simple but effective as he moves the team around Katrina Lindsay’s set – basically school desks and chairs. I really loved the result, with a triumphant Farage speaking over Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’, a moment that for some reason really hit me emotionally.

Overall then, My Country; a work in progress is, to my mind, an interesting journey through the views of the people of this sceptred isle. My only real negative, aside from the missing regions, is that it hasn’t been updated. It would be fairly easy to have an interval as the result comes in then have a second half that goes into more depth about the aftermath. I would really recommend that you get hold of a programme. It’s a fascinating read – in fact, I was so into it that I missed the five-minute call. Ultimately My Country; a work in progress is a good show, with a first-rate cast, that is well worth seeing and, despite the potential dryness of the subject matter, never gets even marginally boring.

3 Star Review

 

 

Review by Terry Eastham

MY COUNTRY; A WORK IN PROGRESS

On 20 June 7:30pm

At Theatre Royal Stratford East
Gerry Raffles Square, London E15 1BN

In the days after the EU referendum, the National Theatre began a nationwide listening project. A team of interviewers spoke to people around the country – from Leicester to Derry/Londonderry and Merthyr Tydfil to Glasgow – to hear their views of the country and towns they live in, their lives, their future, and the referendum.

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