The only thing rarer than a decent play about Brexit is a decent play set in a book club. Which is perhaps why Julie Burchill, scourge of the liberal elite, decided to write a play about Brexit set in a book club.
In People Like Us, roué ad man Ralph introduces his new French squeeze Clemence to his old Oxonian book club. (The location is in north London, natch; the cushions bear slogans such as “GINSBERG IS GOD”.) But with milquetoast Will genteelly knocking on doors for the remain campaign and bolshie working-class Frances sticking two fingers up to George Osborne, can the book group survive the great Brexit schism?
I’m not sure which was worse, the Brexit stuff or the book stuff. Burchill has some good lines on the inanity of book groups – the hell of the modern is not Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face, but “someone reading the same books as you and giving you their opinion for ever”. And in that spirit, we sit through Clemence’s stereotypically turgid views on The Talented Mr Ripley. (“Speaking as a European – a proud one – I find Highsmith’s representation of my continent problematic …”) I was reminded, at press night, of a fellow arts critic who used to call himself a “canary in the opera mine”. We endure this stuff so you don’t have to. When you see us start to suffocate, run.
More shallow even than the Highsmith analysis is the characters’ basic grasp of the arguments for and against Brexit. For Frances, an evident Burchill stand-in, voting Brexit is an act of rebellion and a roar against years of political impotence. (“It’s the first thing in ages that’s actually made me feel something. So big – yet so personal. Visceral, even.”) If she’s aware of arguments for staying in, Burchill doesn’t bother to give them a voice. The flaccid remainer characters talk a lot about silencing dissent but very little about why they value the EU.
There are the beginnings of something interesting when Stacey, Ralph’s brittle, Brexit-voting ex, expresses her distaste for the sight of prepubescent girls in hijabs – at least one remainer accepts this as a reasonable view before the referendum, only to turn around and denounce Stacey as Islamophobic in the polarised atmosphere after the result. There might be a kernel of a decent play here about the loss of good faith in the public sphere. Unfortunately, instead of mourning that good faith, Burchill is more interested in taking pot shots at Paul Smith customers and St Joseph drinkers.
Yet I do give props to Burchill and her co-author, the journalist Jane Robins, for even attempting the feat. Brexit has been the central question of British life for two years and yet theatre’s establishment has struggled to respond.
The National’s much-trailed My Country: A Work in Progress billed itself as a listening exercise, a piece of verbatim theatre based on interviews with voters across the regions. Which only made it more disappointing when the result was thoroughly patronising. Hackneyed slanging matches about immigration. A single non-white actor on stage cast as a monolithic personification of an Asian East Midlands. Questioning the BBC’s decision to screen the show, the Telegraph’s critic noted: “We already have Question Time.” As a response to a national crisis, the Stage called My Country: A Work in Progress “a belated attempt to put a sticking plaster on a gushing wound”.
Recent history also shows that, despite Burchill’s effort, flamingly partisan self-promotion vehicles have not been the sole preserve of Brexiter pens. In early July, I experienced Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Last Exit for Brexit and lived to tell the tale. It’s always a good sign when a French celebrity philosopher writes and directs his own one-man show. Starring himself. As himself. As far as the content goes, I recall a haze of references to BHL’s contributions to the liberal European project, a celebrity cameo by Skype from “dear friend” Salman Rushdie and a series of video projections about BHL’s sexual fantasies. I communed sadly afterwards with a fellow paid-up member of the remain metropolitan elite: “This is why they hate us.”
Only Mike Bartlett’s Albion, staged to acclaim at the Almeida in London last year, has shone any light on what it means to be British after Brexit – and only because it wasn’t explicitly a play about Brexit. Bartlett’s play told the story of a determined and upper-class entrepreneur, committed to renewing her family’s once famous formal English garden – not the subtlest of metaphors, but mercifully free of jangled trade statistics and rows about slogans on the sides of buses.
Burchill and Robins have come close to the same approach here: at its most promising, People Like Us could have been a play about friendship. (“Friends don’t ask friends to abase themselves, Will. And betray everything they believe in. That’s what you expect from lovers. Not from friends.”) Unfortunately, it’s a play about friends who keep yelling at each other about Brexit. Worse, it’s a play bereft of likable or rounded characters.
The problem is, I’ve always rather liked Burchill. She doesn’t like the Guardian: “I doubt that, during the whole campaign, she ever read a well-informed article about Europe in the Guardian or the FT,” sneers the obnoxious Ralph about Frances. But she’s witty in print – hence those occasional one-liners that show what People Like Us might have been. It’s not you, Julie, it’s Brexit.
• People Like Us is at the Union theatre, London, until 20 October.