‘A Kind of People’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
A Kind of People, Royal Court Theatre, 2019
Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Button-pushing new drama about race and class from Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti

‘You lot are like a real community,’ says Victoria, Gary’s boss, when she invites herself into a birthday party at his council house on a multicultural city estate. ‘This is so nice, like you’re off the telly,’ she coos. Not for long. Gary’s circle might seem tight-knit, with his wife and best mate he’s known since school, and their neighbours popping in. But over the course of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play, personal conflicts get so viciously tangled up with dormant racial, cultural and class tensions, their domestic set-up is soon more melodramatic soap opera than cosy sitcom.

Gary is black; he’s been working as an electrical engineer for a decade and thinks it’s his time to get promoted to team leader. Victoria is white; she gets outrageously drunk at the party and starts ordering Gary around, demanding he show her how to dance like a black woman, ‘shaking their big fat bottoms’. Watching Amy Morgan twerk while she sings Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ – including, yes, the N word – is so painfully awful I think I actually yelped in the stalls.

So when Victoria passes Gary over for promotion in favour of a white colleague, it’s too much for his pride. He quits after angrily accusing her of being a racist, puffed up on principle – but his wife Nicky, a white, working-class woman, is horrified. His unemployment piles the pressure on and crushes her dreams of a better life for them and their kids. Nicky’s own lack of understanding about how to play the education system forms another plotline, revealed in contrast with their pushier and better off Pakistani neighbours: ‘Education is a weapon and we need our kids to be armed.’

Best known for her play ‘Behzti’ (or rather, for the intense protests it provoked from Sikhs, angry at the depiction of a rape in a temple), Bhatti has gone for more button-pushing here. There are times when the rapid whacking at the very many multicultural ‘issues’ included makes it feel like a race-drama splat the rat, the game we see Gary making for their kids’ school fête.

But the performances in Michael Buffong’s production mostly imbue the play with a natural, relatable air, even if some dialogue feels pretty on the nose. Clare-Louise Cordwell is terrific as Nicky, making her the heart of the show by charting a fall from cheery satisfaction to full-on despair (her character really is put through the wringer). And Petra Letang as Gary’s apolitical sister Karen makes off with any scene she’s in: gloriously withering, she has such devastating comic delivery it takes three attempts to get through one particular line because the audience keeps laughing too loudly.

There’s a lot of nicely observed social comedy, and Bhatti is on confident ground revealing these supposed friends’ hypocrisies and judgements on each other, as well as more serious structural inequalities. No one is wholly demonised (even the ghastly Victoria). But there is some leaden exposition tennis – with characters volleying things at each other that they’d surely know – and there are thudding chunks of backstory. And Anna Fleischle’s imposing, minimalist-chic set – high walls carved into squares, like a grey-and-turquoise Mondrian – seems an odd choice, not exactly helping to cook this pressured domestic drama. 

By: Holly Williams

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