Testing time for the British

Testing the Echo: David Edgar, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until SaturdayIn a country where the national dish, apparently invented in Glasgow, is chicken tikka masala, it's not surprising that the issue of 'Britishness' is a fitting target for a politically minded playwright.

Ivan Howlett

Testing the Echo: David Edgar, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until Saturday

In a country where the national dish, apparently invented in Glasgow, is chicken tikka masala, it's not surprising that the issue of 'Britishness' is a fitting target for a politically minded playwright.

David Edgar is a writer out of the top drawer. This is a witty and penetrating play packed with political observations in its 68 scenes, and done in a brisk high-energy manner by Max Stafford Clark's Out of Joint Company.


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We follow a class of ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) being trained for the British citizenship test, which if they pass, qualifies them to go before the mayor and swear allegiance to their new country. Coming from different countries, they all have their own reason for wanting to become British, which may not always fit in with what homegrown bureaucrats want.

The questions to which they need to know the answers for the test are based mainly on historical facts. They come at the class members a bit like a pub quiz and seem designed to keep people out of the country rather than let them in. Much of history - like how good were the good guys and how bad the bad - is, of course, opinion not fact, and three characters who're historians dip in with their pennyworth to add to the confusion.

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Matthew Dunster directs eight actors in a fast- moving, cross-pattering ensemble production. The actors play everyone including the class, the teacher, the mayor, the historians; dinner party guests with views largely reflecting tabloid opinion. Sound designer Ian Dickinson devises various noises and rhythms, while designer Paul Wills has a wide screen across the back on which are brought up video clips and blogs reflecting views very different from those heard the dinner party.

As well as the stories of the individual characters, the play ranges over many areas including the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, the swearing of a national oath, how school dress can conflict with cultural traditions - all the religion versus the law issues. Utterly fascinating.

I have only one grumble. I'm an intervals man. One hour 45 mins is a long stretch. Many directors don't like intervals, but I've not seen play that can't pick up momentum after a break. You can also have a chat about the play and the theatre can take few bob from selling drinks. As it stands, stupidly, this play feels too long.

Ivan Howlett

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