David Pinner’s Oh, To Be In England receives its world premiere at the Finborough this week, thirty five years after it was written. The play, which examines the consequences of England’s collapsing empire and global relevance on the psyche of the victorious WWII generation, was apparently unproduceable at the time of its writing due to its “unapologetic skewering of political extremism in the UK.”
In the mid 70s? But wasn’t that they heyday of political theatre provocateurs par excellence 7:84? Wasn’t that when Caryl Churchill’s feminist-socialist works were hitting their stride in London? Hadn’t the Royal Court in 1973 featured a Conservative cabinet minister being killed on stage with plastic explosive by a left-wing revolutionary squatter in Howard Brenton’s Magnificance? Wasn’t that fully two decades after Arthur Miller delivered the ultimate political skewering with The Crucible? Was Oh To Be In England really so politically racy at that time that it needed to be stuffed in a drawer? Isn’t it possible that it simply wasn’t a strong enough play to warrant a production?
In the event, and against all odds, Oh To Be In England turns out to be actually a pretty decent play. The plot follows George Hampton (Peter Broome, channelling Mark Rylance) – reliable stockbroker, puritan, restrained Englishman – as he returns on St George’s Day (Geddit? He’s called George because he’s so English) in 1974 after losing his job. His wife (Charlotte Thornton), fed up with his restrained and inactive status, seems to be having some sort of existential crisis on his behalf and insists on him taking some sort of action at any cost – the slightly curious one she alights on being that he should have an affair with their neighbour (Natalie Lesser), who is well up for it but ends up with his son instead (Daniel Fraser). Seemingly in an effort to wind him up further – George is a proper old racist and xenophobe – she decides to take in a German lodger (Jonathan Christie) and have an affair with him. Of course none of this phases George (he’s too English to be phased by anything) which makes everyone even more cross about his inability to get interested in anything.
It’s all less ridiculous that it sounds (well, a little bit less ridiculous) and the script has some wonderful little moments of dark comedy. Unfortunately (in this preview performance at least) it’s never played this way, with brooding menace and threat never far below the surface – instead, the cast seem to waste the text by having too much fun with it. It’s played for laughs. And not the wonderful, dreadful laughs that you get from Pinter but the empty little giggles you get from snappy quips.
This is a dark play. Losing his job has changed George Hampton. But we never see the reserved, very very English George Hampton that makes the whole point of this play; we only ever meet him as the half-shaven, half-drunk, dancing, axe wielding, champagne swilling, bare chested maniac; I’ve never seen any character who seems less prone to inaction, less English than the George Hampton we see. And we never see the other characters’ reactions to the change in him: we never see the jokes they tell around him as a nervous reaction to his changed state; we only see the witty quips that are played for straightforward funnies.
The opening scene, in which a son confronts his mother about the affair his father might be having with the neighbour should be filled with danger. What mother and son having that conversation wouldn’t be on eggshells with pounding heart? Yes, there are jokes on the page, but surely they’re not telling jokes because it’s a lighthearted chat – which is what we get in this production – surely they’re telling jokes because that’s the best way of not talking about it. This is not a happy scene for the characters involved to gabble through, or at least it shouldn’t be, so playing it as if it is feels like a mistake.
Contrary to my expectations, this is not a weak and justifiably forgotten play. It has the potential to be superb, and the Finborough deserves credit for pulling it from the archives for a well-deserved airing. This (preview of the) production, however, misses – the performances lack all menace, all threat, all concern; never are we nervous, or worried or threatened by the plight of the characters. And for that, this play feels like a missed opportunity.