Julie Burchill’s new play is supposed to be a strike against the Remainer ‘elite’ but in the end, she scores an own goal.
While the Sun’s Jane Moore was hopping around the aisles, presumably in a state of excitement, Rod Liddle arrived with a gaggle of his chums. ‘This should be fun, shouldn’t it?’ he asked, within earshot. Yup – some of the UK’s media elite were gathering to witness a preview of Julie Burchill and Jane Robins’ new play People Like Us, which, we were reliably informed, was about ‘sex and Brexit’.
To drum up publicity for the production, Burchill has already been shamelessly provocative, using interviews to denigrate the 48% by talking of ‘filthy Remainers’ and how she and Robins had been ‘shunned’ for their pro-Brexit views. As a result of this unseemly behaviour by those who voted the other way, the pair decided to lay out their angst in the form of this play, set within a book club in north London, where five friends have their social life ripped apart by the repercussions of the referendum.
As evidenced by Moore and Liddle’s attendance, Burchill was never in any danger of being ‘shunned’ for her pro-Brexit views – far from it. Many of the journalists who are most closely associated with Burchill – from her first husband Tony Parsons to Toby Young, who co-founded the magazine The Modern Review along with Burchill and her second spouse, never mind the plethora of editors such as Fraser Nelson who have kept her gainfully employed over the years, are all ardently anti-Brussels.
No, what we have here is Burchill giving a sisterly shoulder for Robins to cry on and offering someone who may well have been ‘shunned’ the opportunity to shout out her defiance. For Burchill, who I got to know quite well when I helped out at The Modern Review back in the 1990s, has never been anything less than generous. From dinners out at The Groucho to evenings of beer and ping-pong back at her Bloomsbury flat, the tab for the staff’s entertainment was always laid at her door, no questions asked. And if enthusiasm and energy sagged during the late-night hours when the magazine was being put together, some stimulation of sorts was only ever a phone call away.
The evidence is pretty clear that the main thrust of People Like Us has very little to do with Burchill. There are three (or is it four?) Oxford graduates among the book club’s attendees – like the entire production, the details are somewhat incoherent – and Burchill has famously riled against the supposed benefits of graduate-level education, and never wanted one either. And can anyone seriously imagine Burchill hosting a book club – or ‘group’ as the play chooses to describe it – in the first place?
There’s plenty of booze, of course, and pop-cultural references chucked in for effect, which were no doubt penned by Burchill. But as for a discussion of the pros and cons of Brexit, there’s nothing for the audience to chew on. Even in the first act, when the book club’s hosts Ralph, an affluent brand manager played by Kamaal Hussain, and his younger girlfriend Clémence (Marine Andre), who, we are led to believe, works for an EU-funded ecological project, are getting their living room ready for a talk on the merits of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (it’s all about the betrayal of friendship, don’tcha know), the pair insist that they ‘shouldn’t introduce the subject of politics’ into the evening, as if – on the very eve of the referendum – anyone in the UK was talking of anything but politics.
So the backstory to the play consists of a group of Oxford alumni, who have known each other for a decade or so, allegedly alienated by opposing opinions on the merits of Brexit, who, it turns out, never actually discussed the dynamics of the referendum until June 24, 2016.
If you can believe that incongruous start, we’re then introduced to Will (Paul Giddings), a Blairite fence-sitter who has yet to complete his debut novel (obviously a point of great hilarity among the self-satisfied clique that hang out with people like, well, novelists Julie Burchill and Jane Robins) and Kamaal’s former squeeze and erstwhile television producer Stacey, played by Gemma Germaine (Jane Robins was editor of the Beeb’s Week in Westminster in a past life, so had a career in radio, rather than telly, but you get the drift…).
Stacey turns up half-cut alongside the more seriously drunk Frances (Sarah Toogood), a gruff northerner and classics teacher. At one point, Frances shouts ‘Up the Workers!’ for no discernible reason other than to show off her gritty credentials (a bit of Burchill here, we imagine). And, as the script fails miserably to explain how she, her wine intake excepted, fits into this exclusive scene, Frances is the one who may, or may not, have been at Oxford.
Burchill is fondly remembered by the staff at The Modern Review for having fallen helplessly in love with Take That a good 18 months or so after the boy band first hit the charts (her copy, when submitted to the office, resulted in incredulous, if muffled, guffaws), and some ancient pop-cultural references are dropped randomly into People Like Us.
Will, for example, when discussing the merits of Mr Ripley, sagely advises that friendship should always be preferred to love, because ‘Love, love will tear us apart, again’. Even more clunkily, as the play moves into its second act and confrontation looms between the pro- and anti-Brexiteers, Stacey – at one point – accuses Ralph of being afraid to come out of his ‘safe European home’. Quite how the Clash’s 1978 song about returning from a violent sojourn on the streets of Jamaica to the warm embrace of west London relates to intra-European relationships is beyond me, other than it sounds good to Burchill – and, as she must have approved it – Jane Robins as well.
Burchill also manages to work in her favourite bon mot of the moment, describing those ‘filthy Remainers’ as ‘parasexuals’, a phrase – and I’ve googled this several times – that seems to have no logical meaning whatsoever. And, just for a lark, the pair introduce Michel Houellebecq’s Submission as the second book to be reviewed by the four (or is it three?) Oxford grads, solely as a means of wrapping the play up as a conflict over implied racism. Cheap doesn’t begin to describe this pathetic tactic.
Finally, in answer to Rod Liddle, no, this play isn’t fun at all, mate. It’s dull, desperate, contains zero sex and very little about Brexit. Still, as long as Burchill is back at her apartment in safe, suburban Hove, I’m sure she’s having a right old giggle – at our expense.
People Like Us is at London’s Union Theatre, until October 20 (uniontheatre.biz)