You walk into the Cabaret Bar and this young, friendly white woman greets you. She tells you her name is Lara and she offers you a cup of tea. She’s going to tell you about how she started her very own welcome revolution, There are sofas scattered around the room and she encourages you to get comfortable, to make yourself feel at home. There’s bunting absolutely everywhere.
I find that this type of artificial cosiness in theatre can be alienating if it’s not done with a certain level of charisma, which the production luckily has in buckets. Stella von Kuskell, playing Lara, has the gentle manner of a nursery school teacher and it’s almost impossible to not relax into your seat as she starts to tell you about her late grandfather’s café. The production is openly charming and directed with a lightness of touch by Josie Davies, to the extent that it’s only been in the last day or so that my anger towards the politics of the show has begun to spike up through my skin.
Because here’s the thing. Bunting, fairy lights – I associate them with The Great British Bake Off, Cath Kidston, people with Keep Calm and Carry On posters – a very specific idea of Britishness that makes me suspicious. This commodification of twee, this rise of sugar-coated nationalism, return to home values, to so-called Blitz Spirit – it tries to paper over the ugliness and hate that the UK seethes with. The ugliness that is apparent everyday to people of colour, but often not to our white neighbours unless we peel their eyelids open for them and make them watch.
The main message The Welcome Revolution wants you to take away is that kindness is radical and that small acts of kindness can make a huge difference in a society as divided and broken as our own. I don’t know if I agree with this. There is definitely something interesting about how the character of Lara utilises her whiteness, her broad inoffensiveness to get the customers in her café, usually from some marginalised group, to open up to her. There’s a partial awareness there of how whiteness works, how whiteness can be perceived as neutrality and safety. But the whole concept that “kindness is radical” feels to me so utterly, naively white – I don’t need her to tell me that our society needs to be more tolerant of the marginalised. The process of watching this white woman looking out of the window of her bus and seeing the vast injustices hammered down upon the poor, the non-white and her reaction being to…make tea for them? You can appreciate the sentiment, perhaps even feel warmly towards her for the sympathy she has but it also just feels deeply patronising.
And the show itself is oddly apolitical – there’s a near complete lack of acknowledgement of the systems of power in place which have exacerbated and caused these inequalities. There’s no mention of a Tory government who have continually cut welfare and disability benefits, who have deported hundreds of Windrush citizens, who continue to allow Yarl’s Wood to stay up and running. Where is the bite? Where’s the anger? I’m all for kindness and empathy towards those affected but there’s seemingly no interest in critiquing this country’s power systems as a whole. For all of its optimism and sincerity, The Welcome Revolution just feels so utterly naïve.
The Welcome Revolution is on at ZOO Southside until 27th August. More info here.