When Tommy Robinson resigned as leader of the English Defence League citing the “dangers of far-right extremism” among the group’s members, the mainstream reaction was a combination of ridicule and disbelief: a leader of a far right group seen to be quitting because his group are far right. But his resignation, announced at a joint press conference with Maajid Nawaz, director of anti-extremist think tank Quilliam, also lay down a challenge: how do you deal with a racist who’s playing by liberal rules? Arguing against overt racism is one thing; but what happens when a far-right party unveils its diversity policy?
That’s the provocation in Chris Thompson’s Albion, which follows leader Paul Ryman’s attempt to modernise the English Protection Army and shed its image of hooliganism and lager-louts. Paul’s fellow EPA members include brother Jayson, a gay man whose sexuality is openly accepted by the group, and Kyle, a Black British builder who blames Eastern Europeans for his unemployment. Many of the EPA’s core policies and opposition to a new Muslim community centre are motivated by the trio’s (it must be said freakishly unlucky) personal circumstances – the death of Paul and Jayson’s elder sister, and Kyle’s girlfriend, in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan and subsequent mutilation of her corpse by Islamic extremists; the grooming of Paul and Jayson’s younger sister by a group of Asian men and the case’s subsequent mishandling by social worker (and later EPA member) Christine Woolfe.
Policy is mostly thrashed out at The Albion, a proper East End boozer where Paul is landlord and even the mention of anything on cask is enough to get you punched. The advancement of the EPA goes hand-in-hand with changes at the pub, Kyle and Jayson as resistant to a diversity agenda as they are to a YouTube mash-up night replacing karaoke. Paul’s attempted transformation from far-right leader to prospective mayoral candidate for Tower Hamlets is steeped in the rhetoric and ridiculousness of the contemporary far right – there are echoes of Robinson’s resignation speech (“from the beginning we’ve wanted to embrace everyone: all colours and creeds,” said Robsinon; “I oppose the community centre because I believe in equal opportunity for all… I value diversity,” says Ryman), and his costume for a Newsnight interview is identical to Robinson’s for his Quilliam pressconference. For good measure there’s even a hint at Nick Griffin’s infamous cooking video in a bizarre scene in which Christine launches as recipe book on a shopping channel.
There’s also a notable absence of an opposing liberal view. “I can’t think of anything more tedious than the ‘liberal’ version of this play,” says Thompson in his programme note. “What happens? We go in, watch a play saying how bad the far right are, then we come out feeling smug, self-satisfied and superior. Fuck that.” What results (even if not as original as Thompson implies – Moonfleece and A Day at the Racists have taken similar approaches before) is a portrait of a far-right group in crisis, struggling to define itself in a post-Griffin-does-Question Time climate and repurposing the language of diversity to their own ends.
That, plus karaoke.
It’s the Albion’s staple diet – every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The world of the EPA is built up around it; as a metaphor for political protest, karaoke just about works – the adrenalin rush of addressing a crowd and the empowerment that comes with it; the ritualism of following an existing song, protest chant, political argument; the sense of belonging when the crowd sings with you. Every scene in Albion is framed around a karaoke song, subtitled on screens above the stage, creating a sort of jukebox musical where political discourse gives way to pop – it rains men at an EPA rally, Christine wishes she could turn back time on her job as a social worker, Paul better beat it if he thinks he can lead the party like that, and so on until an inevitable Bonnie Tyler climax. For the most part the song lyrics are unedited, simply landed upon their characters mid-scene, with the notable exception of this lesser known Tom Jones b-side:
At polling day I was driven away by your bleating
Who do you think will come in when you open the door?
You stood there laughing
I felt the knife in my back, and I laughed no more.
My, my, my, dear Labour
Why, why, why, dear Labour?
It’s once, twice, three times a liability. First, once Thompson’s started down the long and winding road of embedding karaoke into every scene, he just don’t stop: Albion becomes a 70-minute political play with an 80-minute soundtrack layered on top of it, and for all the (tireless) commitment and energy of Ria Parry’s production it means a punchy political number ends up taking forever and a day. Second, the song choices by nature follow the line of best fit (rather than an original score writing to reach inside the characters), meaning some inevitably feel forced, either in terms of the language adopted or because there’s a formal imperative to burst into song whenever, wherever mid-scene. And third, karaoke is emblematic of a general incoherence within Albion‘s overall argument. The piece sways wildly between socio-political commentary – especially in scenes involving disgruntled social worker turned political activist and prospective mayor Christine, whose characterisation is by a distance the most well-rounded of the piece – and sing-a-longs. The ridiculousness of karaoke in itself inevitably lends Albion an air of sending up the far right which counters Thompson’s attempts elsewhere to give us a nuanced portrait, which is also true for the play’s comedy – it’s hard to accept that the media-savvy Paul Ryman would come out with sentences like “look, there’s a gay” in a recorded interview, for example.
It might have been brilliant (it’s a political play with karaoke!) and there are moments that echo the final act of Mr. Burns, the reappropriation of narrative for a given effect, be that political advancement – the language of diversity repurposed by the far right – or the language of pop; karaoke as counter-culture. And the falseness of that language is laid bare through shallow shopping channel spiels, see-through interviews and the disquieting otherness of a radio-mic’ed cast in a small space. Oliver Sacks writes in Musicophilia about “the almost irresistible power of rhythm… [serving] to whip up a collective and perhaps martial excitement… Rhythm… and its power to “move” people (in both senses of the word) may well have had a crucial cultural and economic function in human evolution, bringing people together, producing a sense of community and collectivity” – and the idea of singing as a means to believing something or as expression of the otherwise unsayable becomes ever more terrifying in the hands of the far-right. But Albion fails to explore either that or its political arguments as deeply as it might, never quite sure whether it’s a portrait of the far-right’s attempt at political correctness, a rhapsody on karaoke or a send-up of extremism and belief; a great idea rushing headlong out of control.