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Tome On The Range

Britain First? Albion Playwright Chris Thompson Interviewed
Jessie Thompson , September 21st, 2014 11:36

Jessie Thompson speaks to the playwright Chris Thompson about the dangers of working class marginalisation, subverting expectations and stereotypes and the power of karaoke in his new play, Albion

Over 450,000 people ‘like’ Britain First on Facebook, a group who fashion themselves as a ‘patriotic political party’. A quick browse of their page shows that hunting down ‘Muslim extremists’, keeping Scotland in the Union, and tributes to ‘our boys’ are all pretty high up their agenda. Britain Furst, on the other hand, a parody group set up to mock BF, has over 85,000 likes – including nine of my Facebook friends. But, then, I’d expect this to be so since my social circle is predominantly made up of privileged middle class left-wingers. Why wouldn’t they oppose a far right extremist group? But on further investigation, the page is riven with naked contempt towards the working class; one post deriding ‘little Englanders’ says, ‘Recreate your holiday by wandering into Greggs wearing swimming trunks, pointing at a sausage roll, shouting TWO and paying with a £50 note’. The comments beneath are worse: ‘If Greggs was shut down, the special needs, tracksuit-clad toilets would starve and die off and the humans could all live in peace’. In their clamour to prove their hatred of intolerance, they’ve actually ended up mocking some of the most vulnerable people in our society – ironic or what?

Chris Thompson’s wonderful new play, Albion, at the Bush Theatre, explores this hypocrisy. It introduces us to the English Protection Army, and their struggle to be heard, in between karaoke nights at their local East End boozer. Their circumstances are a perfect storm for the growth of extremism: their sister Poppy has been killed while fighting in Afghanistan, their sort-of step-niece has been groomed and abused by a gang of Asian men, neither Kyle nor Jayson can get a job or a house. They feel abandoned, voiceless, and angry.

It’s fascinating to watch the audience’s response. It taps into so many subtle anxieties and prejudices that those watching may even monitor their own reactions in anticipation of anyone watching them watching.

“We totally fuck the audience over,” Thompson laughs, “and I don’t mean that in the horrible manipulative theatre way where you just feel like, ‘oh my God, I’m being traumatised here.’ But Tony Clay, the actor, gets you on side straight away because he’s so warm, and it’s that lovely moment where you have that speech about karaoke and everyone thinks ‘yeah! Karaoke! We’re in the pub! We’re having a really good time!’ And then by the time Delroy (Atkinson, who plays Kyle) gets up to sing ‘Delilah’, we’ve learnt who these people are, and everyone’s just like – ‘I’m not clapping. I’m really demonstrating that I’m not clapping.’ People really change. It’s like the audience has a different character through the play.”

And, of course, as Britain Furst’s popular Facebook page makes apparent, people don’t seem to check their responses to the working class in the same way that they do towards race and religion. I admitted that there were moments when people laughed that shocked me, seeming to show that class prejudice is still often unconsciously displayed.

“But I’d like to believe that it’s an uncomfortable laughter,” he says. “From the outset, it was really important for me that we didn’t take the piss out of these people. There’s a very easy version of this play where we just lampoon them, and go, ‘ha ha, aren’t they really silly.’ And that’s unacceptable to me for loads and loads of reasons – we just don’t need that play. So we’ve been working really hard, just listening to the audience, and if it feels like the audience think we’re taking the piss then we’re just altering the tone – it can be a very slight shift. If people laugh, that’s fine – but I know that we’ve set the tone that we’re comfortable with.”

It’s a fearless play: it doesn’t water down the views of the Far Right or try and make them acceptable — the story is littered with exuberant scenes of karaoke, presenting the audience with episodes of immense amounts of fun even as they are confronted with some of the most difficult questions. It’s also immediately intriguing that one of the EPA’s members is gay, and one is black.

“What really sparked the idea was that I was watching some far right protests in London, and then I saw the LGBT rainbow flag,” says Thompson. “I was scratching my head going, ‘that really isn’t what I think about the far right!’ I don’t associate them with tolerance. So I went on Google – obviously, where all research begins – and then I found this interesting notion of far right groups and parties learning a language of diversity to try and bring people in. Some of the underlying messages they have underneath are more toxic, but a lot of their top level stuff is stuff we can all get on board with; some of the views expressed in the play, I would say the majority of people in the audience agree with. And that’s not a criticism – that’s the point, they have that style.”

Thompson makes it clear that the EPA are not based on a particular party: “People will recognise moments in terms of the far right’s history in recent times in the UK, but I’ve also taken strands of what’s happening in France and in Greece. You’ve got Marine Le Pen, and then Golden Dawn in Greece. And this is not news – we know in terms of austerity that far right groups increase, that’s always been the case. I was trying to piece it together, and at the end of the play, making an offer – this could be the future here if we’re not careful.”

After working as a social worker in South London for twelve years, Thompson quit only two months ago to focus on writing. His first play, Carthage, which was performed at the Finborough Theatre, was a personal response to over a decade working in social care, based around the question ‘do you do more harm than good when you intervene in some families’ lives?’ “Because sometimes you definitely do good,” he says, “sometimes you just think, actually I’ve fucked them up even more now.”

The play feels alarmingly of the moment: Christine is a social worker who has lost her job following the discovery that girls in the area were being groomed and abused by a group of Asian men. Inevitably, she feels she’s been scapegoated, and is pushed to the far right herself. This is in no way a dominant part of the play, but in the wake of Rotherham, it can’t help but feel uncannily prescient.

“I wrote those scenes a year ago – anyone who works in social work will tell you that was coming. And that’s not a gleeful or smug thing, but this isn’t news. It’s been going on since 1997. It’s just horrendous. I thought about cutting it – you know when you go to the theatre and think, ‘that’s really opportunist, they’ve just shoved that in last minute’, but I know we haven’t, and I’m gonna stand by it. I think it asks some important questions that we should be asking, and we’re all talking about it, so with that in mind, it feels okay to keep it in. But we’re not marketing it on the moments that talk about the grooming cases – I just feel very strongly – everyone does - that you don’t market a play on abused girls.”

But it demonstrates a clear trend by the far right in using personal tragedies to further their message. Poppy’s death in Afghanistan is described by Kyle as ‘a gift’ – at one point, he wears a t-shirt with a photo of her dead body – and Leanne, one of the abused girls, becomes an important prop in Christine’s later election campaign.

“And Christine grooms Leanne for a far right cause. And that’s happening right now – we don’t have any individuals coming forward and waiving their right to anonymity and saying they were victims, but you’ve got far right groups exploiting this now, and they feel vindicated. And people are going, ‘we should have listened to you’.”

Jayson, the younger brother of EPA leader Paul Ryman, is a character that we find ourselves quite liking, even knowing what we do about his less-than-palatable views. There’s a sense, though, that these views aren’t really his own; that he goes along with his brother because he wants to be part of something, to have a voice - but actually, perhaps he just likes the singing.

“I think he comes to feel that way, but I don’t think he does initially,” Thompson suggests. “Because he’s a slightly younger generation, and he would have gone to school in a really mixed area. And the younger generation are much better than the older generation at handling diversity because they don’t give a shit, they just get on with it, in a really positive way. I think those beliefs are inculcated in him, but at the beginning it’s either way. And Aashir sees that genuine potential. But then he gets radicalised and groomed, he’s shafted left, right and centre, and he’s abandoned. In a way that I feel a lot of working class people in this country are abandoned.”

Aashir, who Jayson meets on Grindr, is Asian – but he’s also a senior programmer at the BFI, and wants to run a YouTube Slam night in the Albion pub which will be ‘counter cultural…subverting ideas around heteronormativity and gender in a playful and provactive way’; as Thompson suggests, “that relationship is about class more than anything.”

“Aashir is like an empowered consumer,” he says. “He’s got a sense of entitlement, he’s middle class. Of course he would walk into the Albion pub and see a business opportunity. Not in an exploitative way, but he’s just feel, yeah, why not? He feels British, he thinks he can do it, so that’s what he’s gonna do. That’s really important in that relationship – there is a difference, and it does become about class. Jayson calls him a tourist at the end, and that’s around sex as well. You live one level of our relationship with diversity, and then when you bring it down to porn, it’s extremism and diversity all in one. Because you can flick through, you can say I’m into black women – there’s a sense that it’s okay to be specific around race because you’re consuming.”

But Albion is a play about perception: “I don’t even disclose whether Aashir is Muslim or not, because I’m interested in what the audience will bring and what they’ll transfer to each scene and each situation. Because I don’t really take a view – there’s no filter on it from the author. So when people watch those scenes, it’s their own world. So sometimes people have come out and gone, ‘what’s a Muslim doing like this?’ and I’ve gone, hold on – when did he actually say he was a Muslim?”

Amidst the tough questions, Albion does also allow us to laugh at our own anxieties around cultural inclusion and our fear of saying the wrong thing. An early scene sees a group of social workers having a ‘cultural picnic’ inflicted on them in the staffroom. One employee is showered with praise for bringing in an offering of Polish cuisine, whilst Christine is chastised for bringing in Tescos sausage rolls and Pringles. “And having worked in local authorities and the NHS for twelve years, that’s just been my life – cultural picnic after cultural picnic!” Thompson laughs. “And all the white people always had sausage rolls and Marks and Spencers stuff but everyone else had brought in stuff from their culture. And actually I think it is a question – how do white British people express their culture and identity? Food is the naff way of doing it, but what the hell do you bring in? I really feel a lot of people recognise that as well; some people feel that’s a bit of persecution, whereas I would never see it that way. It’s about how that moment translates to you personally.”

And on the subject of culture, Albion makes playful but powerful use of karaoke, as a way of showing the characters attempting to claim some form of cultural capital. The Albion pub proudly has karaoke every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Everyone has their own song, which they sing each time. The play opens with Jayson declaring that ‘it’s just a night out – but it’s more than that’. Even when asked about why he goes on EPA marches, he states, ‘I like the singing’. Karaoke in the pub is not only a vehicle for the voiceless to express themselves, but it’s a colonisation of space, a sanctuary from external threats.

“The set design by James Button is based on a pub in Bethnal Green, and you really do feel like it’s the last stronghold of Great British people – the flags are out, and you see everyone gathering there. The pubs are the places where, culturally, people would congregate, because there’s not a great sense of religion, so people aren’t going to go to church much in that area. And it’s lovely when you go and you see the same person singing the same song every week – and it’s a really important part of their week, it’s their song and it’s what they do. And it’s really connected to a sense of expression and saying something that they can’t. I always think of football as well – when you get guys crying at football it’s kind of a legitimate outlet for emotions when usually they might not cry. That sense that there’s no other place that we can go and all that emotion comes out in one place in 90 minutes. And that’s kind of the point with karaoke.”

The characters are well aware that people can be snobby about karaoke, but here it’s bittersweet – poetic, at times – as an outlet for the abandoned to rage and be joyful and find a moment that they feel is theirs alone. Christine later goes on to lament the loss of English culture – repressed at the expense of all other cultures, of course – but surely the real issue is accessibility. I personally feel I have an awareness of ‘English culture’ (whatever that is anyway - Shakespeare, Jane Austen… Kate Bush?) – but that’s because I’ve had the privilege of a good education.

“And it’s also about feeling that something is for you, and having permission to get involved in it,” says Thompson. “The issue for me has always been the Royal Family. I don’t feel a massive connection to them, and yet they’re a huge part of our history and culture. And that’s been the vessel – apart from the Olympics, which saved us I think. The royal wedding and babies. I’m sure they’re lovely people and it’s nice news, but it’s not that interesting – and yet, that is our vessel. What people are given to express patriotism or cultural identity becomes the army, the Royal Family, and very little else really. There’s not a huge amount available, or a language for people to say that they’re proud of where they’re from. Because sometimes you need a hook to hang it on, don’t you?”

“People do feel a sense of loss that this country isn’t what it used to be any more. And I don’t understand that and I’ve never really experienced what they feel they’ve lost anyway. It’s really odd – less rights!? Great. But it’s genuine, and it’s important to have that heard and discussed and not censored – because otherwise people feel like pariahs for having ‘unacceptable views’.”

And that’s where Albion really hits the hardest – by making us realise that we often shut down the most vulnerable people in our society at the point of entry, through an aggressive impulse to immediately make sure everyone knows that we’re distancing ourselves from intolerance.

“But people’s concerns are legitimate – around housing, jobs. And people do have concerns around immigration. And it’s difficult, because you don’t have to be pro-immigration. That’s part of what frustrates me around liberal discourse: when someone says they’re not in favour of immigration, the immediate response is, you’re a racist, you’re xenophobic. And we shut them down – and then we’re not listening to the underlying issue. And often people are saying, ‘we’re not okay’.”

He laments that we so often only view immigration through the lens of whether it’s helpful to the economy – “not everything is about money all the time” – and adds that being able to have a global outlook can be of huge benefit: “I think travelling helps. I was fortunate enough that I saved up and travelled around the world. So you get that kind of enjoyment of meeting people from other cultures that isn’t related to whether it means you can get a job or not.”

But the fact remains that being anti-immigration has now become synonymous in liberal discourse with being a racist, and it’s constantly closing the door on people who are struggling to be heard in the first place.

“There’s a clip of Question Time of a guy getting booed out of the studio, and it’s heartbreaking. Basically he’s homeless and he’s got nothing to eat, and he’s come to say there’s too much immigration. And he gets booed, you know, ‘eurgh, disgusting views’, someone on the panel calls him racist – and he says, I haven’t actually said anything racist. And he hadn’t. And then he says, ‘now I’ve got to go to the housing office and ask an immigrant for a house’ – and that does feel very pungent and hostile, but I kind of understand his logic. He’s saying he’s not okay. And yet he was absolutely censored, and he just literally left the studio.

“And I think, is this how we treat people? Because they’re saying things in a way we don’t find comfortable? Surely there’s a longer process to go through with these people than just censoring them. I’ll tell you what, if you want to push people further to the right, then censor them. It’s really devastating. And I don’t agree with what he’s saying, but I don’t understand why we made him feel so disgusting.”

And Thompson laments further mistakes in mainstream media when dealing with the far right. Recalling the Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, he says it was “a wasted opportunity.”

“They should have put someone on that panel who was white and working class, and said, ‘no, you don’t speak for me’. Because actually what they got was a load of liberal middle class voices going, ‘Ooh we’re going to talk about ancestry’. And what you needed was someone saying, ‘Listen, I’m one of the people who you say you speak for, and you don’t speak for me.’ All it did was showed the disdain for the working class, the chasm between those people and those people.”

(A marker for the far right’s success in re-marketing themselves and making their message more palatable, as Thompson suggests, is Nigel Farage’s ubiquitous presence on the Question Time panel. “There’s a self-moderation, but there’s not a change of views,” he says.)

And this utter contempt for the working class is never more apparent than at anti-far right counter-protests, which Thompson has witnessed for observational and research purposes. On some level, I suggest that they feel like a vanity exercise – a need for the liberal middle class to show their disgust at views which they see as abhorrent. All of this doesn’t take into account the implications of allowing the far right white working class to become a symbol for everything that’s hateful: they become completely dehumanised.

“It feels like the zoo – just shouting at some poor people who are really angry,” Thompson says. “And I’m not saying I agree with them at all, obviously. It’s just really sad. And what they’re saying is really horrible, but actually, it’s just smug, superior, supercilious, self-satisfied fuckers that just fuck me off, saying, ‘we’re better than you’. And actually that’s not okay. That’s really the point of this play – not to fetishise these people, or legitimise them, but to look at the underlying issues and the whole person.

“If you just shut them down, that doesn’t solve the problem. Actually what you do is marginalise them, make them feel like a pariah – which is actually what racism does. I’m not saying the two are the same, because they’re very different experiences. But it’s the same process of saying, ‘you’re a horrible person’. Because, actually, not everyone has a fantastic education, not everyone reads The Guardian, not everyone has a World View. So isn’t it quite arrogant to try and force people to think what you think because you think you’re right? If we just shut them down, you just get more of the same, and it gives them more fury and fight and a sense of powerlessness.”

And that inarticulate, grasping howl of frustration is heard most powerfully when Paul Ryman, shambolic leader of the EPA, curses his lot, yelling ‘we’re the new fucking niggers, that’s what we are.’

“What he’s trying to express is that he is the worst of the worst now – he’s the bottom of the pile. He’s a pariah, he disgusts people, he’s of no value. And many people would agree. But I don’t why we would ever say any human being is of absolutely no value.”

We have to hope that, in some small way, this play about people’s perceptions makes people examine their own, and possibly adjust them. We’re receiving warnings practically weekly that all areas of public life are becoming dominated by the most privileged: journalism, politics, the arts. But we don’t need wider representation because of some boring, bureaucratic, box-ticking exercise: “We want those voices heard because they’re part of who we are as a country,” Thompson says, “not this interesting world we have a look in and go, ‘oh, that’s how they live’.”

Albion plays at the Bush Theatre until 25th October

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