A Kind of People at the Royal Court Theatre review ****

A Kind of People

Royal Court Downstairs, 16th December 2019

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a new playwriting name for me. No longer. A Kind of People takes a not uncommon subject, racism in contemporary Britain, and not uncommon set-ups, a mixed race marriage, friendships, a party, a workplace, and conjures up an insightful and nuanced drama, with (mostly) credible dialogue and (mostly) well-rounded characters. If this sounds like I am damming with faint prose I am not. Getting this type of play just right, without getting preachy or taking too unlikely a turn, is not easy so hats off to both writer, and director Michael Buffong from Tawala.

Given the impact that GKB’s previous plays have had my ignorance of her work extends well beyond remiss. Her first play Behsharam (Sensation) was a great success, Behzti (Dishonour), which included the rape of a young woman in a gurdwara, won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2005, before being chased off the Birmingham Rep stage by British Sikh protestors. Her next Behud (Beyond Belief) drew on her experiences around Behzti, followed by Londonee, Fourteen, Khandan (Family), Elephant and Dishoom!. As far as I can work out all of this draw on her own life and Sikh heritage whilst A Kind of People expands beyond this.

Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and Gary (Richie Campbell), childhood sweethearts, now married with three kids, just about managing, are throwing a small party. Gary’s white best mate and work colleague, Mark (Thomas Coombes), is a permanent fixture, Mo (Asif Khan) and Anjum (Manjinder Virk), British Asian friends and neighbours, are a bit better off, Karen (Petra Letang), Gary’s sister and Nicky’s best mate, has just broken up with her partner. Gary’s boss at the electrical engineering company, Victoria (Amy Morgan), pitches up, overdoes it on the prosecco and retires, disgracefully, after a bout of overtly racist behaviour.

All is then forgiven? Not really. And then Gary goes for a promotion, which he doesn’t get despite being well qualified. He blames Victoria. Things unravel from there. See what I mean. No bombshells, disclosures, blasts from the past, or anything else to drive an audience double-take. GKB’s meticulous dialogue explores each character’s motivations and reactions without judgement leaving us to decide who is taking and causing offence and whether the consequences are justified. Maybe there are moments when dialogue to advance the plot, flesh out back stories and build the arguments emerges just a little too artificially, but hey, it’s a play not “real life”.

Fair to say that this production also benefits from two central performances that skilfully mine the ambivalence of the text. The only time I have seen Claire-Louise Cordwell on stage was in the dreadful A Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre for which she takes no blame. Like her, Richie Campbell is also a TV veteran and the experience of both in gritty screen drama and even soaps shines through. This is well beyond soap cliche however, though I note that GKB cut her teeth on Eastenders and has form with The Archers, but the trick of drawing attention to thorny socio-political tensions through heightened individual dilemmas, bears comparison. (Early on Victoria remarks that the party is “so nice, just like off the telly”). Multiple points of view, uncomfortable truths, flawed but empathetic personalities. Gary is casually sexist, Victoria is, at best, full on white gaze, Anjum explicitly classist when it comes to her son’s education, Mark is jealous and manipulative.

Anna Fleischle’s set switches briskly between the couple’s council flat and the workplace, and the park where the play, poignantly, concludes, in flashback. So that nothing gets in the way of the audience’s, palpable, reactions to the unfolding drama. I would hazard a guess that All Kinds of People is a play that has been allowed time to develop and that GKB has been generous in taking on the advice and suggestions of her various collaborators. Which will have helped make it such a tight, effective and vital story.

When the Crows Visit at the Kiln Theatre review ****

When the Crows Visit

Kiln Theatre, 6th November 2019

An adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts, relocated to modern day India. Seems like a good idea no? It was. In fact better than I had expected even with its visible flaws.. Anupama Chandrasekhar has written a play that takes the Norwegian master more as inspiration than instruction and created her own, hard-hitting, response to male violence, female exoneration and the visitation of the sins of the father on the son. And with a crack cast and Indhu Rubasingham directing it is powerfully realised.

Bally Gill, who shone as Romeo in the RSC production last year, plays Akshay, the spoilt entitled son of Hema, (the marvellous Ayesha Dharker who you will recognise from big and small screen), who, along with grandma Jaya (Bollywood veteran Soni Razdan in full-on say what you think mode), fawns over him. We first meet him at the games company he works for in Mumbai, getting a dressing down for the failure of his latest idea from David (Paul G Raymond), the school friend and now successful entrepreneur, who was cajoled into giving Akshay a job because of family connections. Uma, (Miriam Haque who also plays Hema’s progressive sister), gets the nod from David to work on a new game, denting Akshay’s pride. He is still sulking when the three go to a bar for after work drinks. Later he vents his fury in an horrific act of violence with a clear real life antecedent.

He runs back to Mummy and we watch as the truth comes out. But Akshay’s guilt is not punished. Instead the corrupt police inspector, (a somewhat mannered Asif Khan, who plays neighbour Gopi in a similar way), and Hema concoct a plan to shift the blame and Akshay’s toxic aggression turns against Ragini (Aryana Ramkhalawon), the carer for the irascible Jaya. Whilst the development of the story is sickeningly predictable, Ms Chandrasekhar, has her writing hand firmly on the disclosure tiller, ratcheting up the tension, through to the explosive ending. Family history, as you might surmise from the source, plays a big part in this disclosure. There is no hope here; just brutal truth.

The dialogue is leavened with Hindu religious monologues from Jaya and the pesky crows, (realised by the puppetry of Matt Hutchison), which she feeds provide a symbolic edge well matched to Richard Kent’s claustrophobic, shadowy Chennai mansion house set, accented by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and the Ringham brothers sound.

It isn’t subtle, teetering close to melodrama at times, and the original victim of Akshay’s horrific crime has no voice. There are, early on, humorous lines built on stereotype. Many reviewers recoiled from both play and production seeing sensationalism. But I was not clear if they were saying this subject shouldn’t be dramatised, or shouldn’t be dramatised this way. Personally I trust writer and director here and if the narrative and characters didn’t fit received wisdom then, for me, so much the better in terms of getting the message across. This is not a subject or setting that regularly finds its way on to mainstream London stages. There is nothing nuanced about the grotesque, misogynist violence which disfigures all societies, not just India, and reminding audiences outside the normal echo chambers of understanding seems to me a laudable aim. The casual and callous way with which female victims of male violence are portrayed every day of the week on the telly, or elsewhere in popular and high culture seems to me to be a far more pertinent target than this uncomfortable play.