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Toby Young
Saturday 7th June 2003

Us and Them / Elmina's Kitchen / Little Baby Nothing

The Spectator - 7th June 2003

It's taken me a while, but I'm gradually warming up to Jenny Topper, the Artistic Director of the Hampstead Theatre. I've only met her once--this was about three months ago--and it didn't go well. I was talking to a fellow drama critic in the bar when she marched up and told him he was the only one she bothered to read.

"I bet you say that to all the critics," I quipped.

"No, I don't," she said, fixing me with an unfriendly eye. "I haven't said it to you, for instance."

Well, she may not read my reviews, but I'm getting increasing pleasure from going to her theatre. Us and Them, a new comedy by Tamsin Oglesby, is really very good. For one thing, it's incredibly topical. Ostensibly about the friendship between two couples, one British, the other American, its real subject is the transatlantic alliance and, in particular, the rifts that are all-too visible just beneath the surface.

At first, the two couples get on extremely well, but Oglesby carefully demonstrates that their mutual affection is based on a series of cultural misunderstandings. As the mist clears and they begin to see each other for the first time it dawns on them that they have almost nothing in common beyond their shared language. The play climaxes with a full-blown shouting match in which each couple scornfully anatomises everything they loathe about the other's country. It's a terrific scene, the best ten minutes I've spent in the theatre all year. Not only is it hilariously funny, it also feels truthful and, in an odd way, quite brave. As the two couples trade insults, you begin to think that Oglesby is really on to something. Deep down, this is what Brits and Americans think of each other.

Not that Us and Them is anti-American. I got an enormous amount of pleasure from it and I'm fanatically pro-American. (When it comes to that particular prejudice, I'm like some hyper-sensitive Jew constantly searching for traces of anti-Semitism.) Some of the best lines belong to Ed Marshall, the strutting alpha male who embodies the best and the worst of our transatlantic cousins. Here he is denouncing the "rude, incompetent, ugly" inhabitants of this island: "One minute you're in trouble, you shout help, we come running, next minute, we have to listen to your horseshit lectures on how to run our goddamn country. You can't even run your own country. You have a Scotsman in charge, you get an American to fix your Underground, a Swede to manage your soccer team while all you do is jerk around forming committees and sub-committees with regard to the content of your own diapers."

Us and Them isn't faultless. At two hours and thirty minutes it's at least half-an-hour too long--and I knew what the third-act "surprise" was going to be ten minutes into act one. But it's a shining example of what a good, contemporary comedy should be: it's funny, it's well-constructed and it has something new to say about an important subject. With a bit of tweaking it could be a major hit, both in the West End and on Broadway. The people of Hampstead have Jenny Topper to thank for giving them the chance to see it first.

I wish I felt equally warmly about Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National. Jerry Springer: The Opera had my anti-Americanism radar pulsing away like a GCHQ satellite dish--it's the Protocols of the Elders of Zion of anti-Americanism--and his production of Henry V stuck me as a piece of sophomoric agitprop. Alas, Elmina's Kitchen, a new play by the black actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, isn't much better. As with the other two, it seems designed to appeal solely to members of the Guardian-reading intelligentsia. Set on Hackney's "murder mile", and with an entirely black cast, it's the sort of thing the writers of EastEnders might come up with if EastEnders was shown after 10pm on Channel 4. Every scene is underscored by a kind of hand-wringing, middle-class piety and the characters appear to have been created by someone who hasn't set foot in Hackney for at least 20 years. Kwame Kwei-Armah's idea of contemporary black slang, for instance, is "bloodclaat". At the inner-London comprehensive I went to, that was considered out of date in 1975.

As a portrait of Britain's beleaguered underclass, Little Baby Nothing, a new play by Catherine Johnson, is about a thousand times more realistic, which is odd considering Johnson's a middle-aged white woman. She's rich, too, thanks to the fact that she wrote the book for Mamma Mia. But she obviously hasn't lost her sharp eye or her perfectly attuned ear. Teenagers are notoriously difficult to get right, but the three on display here--experimenting with drugs, dabbling in black magic, torturing their parents--have the smack of authenticity. Little Baby Nothing is set in a working-class area of Bristol, but I imagine it will appeal to all mothers currently having to contend with stroppy, 15-year-old daughters. If you can drag the little brats along with you, so much the better.

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