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Below par

1 October 2005

12:00 AM

1 October 2005

12:00 AM

Mike Leigh’s new play, Two Thousand Years, isn’t quite up to his usual standard. It’s not terrible, but it feels as though it was yanked from the director’s improvisatory workshop when it was still in the development stage. It’s about a family of secular north London Jews, and, from the first, everything about them is slightly wrong. Their accents are too adenoidal, almost as if they’re extras in an am-dram production of Fiddler on the Roof, and they use so many Yiddish words you get the impression that each member of the cast has swallowed a Yiddish–English dictionary. (My wife, whose father is a secular north London Jew, was as unfamiliar with these words as the rest of the audience.) Of course, many of Leigh’s characters have this exaggerated, cartoon-ish quality — think of the ghastly Beverly in Abigail’s Party — but the caricaturing doesn’t feel deliberate in this case. It just feels clumsy, as though the company couldn’t be bothered to do any proper research.

Initially, Two Thousand Years seems to be about what happens when the central couple’s grown-up son, Josh, suddenly discovers Orthodox Judaism. He stubbornly refuses to explain himself — he just meanders about looking angry and defiant in his brand-new skullcap — but his parents interpret his behaviour as an affront to their liberal, left-wing values. ‘It’s like having a Muslim in the house,’ his father says. For some reason, though, this set-up is never paid off. The play veers off in a completely different direction when Michelle, the wife’s socially ambitious sister, makes an unexpected appearance in the second half. Instead of exploring what happens when a fairly complacent, secular group of people are challenged by someone demanding a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, Two Thousand Years ends up being yet another opportunity for Leigh to vent his rage at lower-middle-class social climbers. By the time the family have seen off Michelle, having heaped humiliation upon humiliation on her head, Danny has realised the error of his ways and, in the next scene, he’s no longer wearing his skullcap.

The most memorable character in Two Thousand Years is Dave, an old-fashioned socialist played by John Burgess. As Danny’s grandfather, he’s a little more understanding than the boy’s parents. ‘At least he’s found something,’ he says, after complaining bitterly about the fact that Blair and his cronies don’t believe in anything. This point of view — that it’s better to believe in something rather than nothing, however crackpot — appears to be the philosophy of Mike Leigh and the rest of the company — but it’s not clear what else they believe in. Perhaps what they’re saying is that, in the absence of good, solid, Old Labour values, young people like Josh are bound to turn to fundamentalist mumbo-jumbo: the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

The ideas that seem to be only half-formed in Two Thousand Years are much more clearly expressed in Playing with Fire, David Edgar’s new play about the race riots that flared up in 2001. Edgar is in no doubt about who’s responsible for these disturbances. The blue touch-paper is lit when Alex Clifton, a Blair babe, is dispatched to the fictional northern town of Wyverdale to try to improve the performance of the local council. Under her supervision, they start cutting essential services and diverting resources to the local Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. This is supposed to help the council meet its diversity targets, but it has the unintended effect of ratcheting up the racial tension and, eventually, the cauldron boils over.

As a piece of drama, Playing with Fire is a little cack-handed. It switches back and forth between an official inquiry in the present and the events that led up to the race riot four or five years earlier, and while the stuff set in the past is quite absorbing, the inquiry is a bit lifeless. At three hours, the play’s pace is a little too leisurely and it’s a good 90 minutes before Playing with Fire’s real subject — the failure of multiculturalism — hoves into view. As with all Edgar’s plays, the characters are given to speechifying and, at times, it’s obvious that they’re just mouthpieces for the playwright.

Yet, in spite of these shortcomings, Playing with Fire packs quite a punch. Edgar’s intellectual scorn for identity politics, with its emphasis on empowering various minorities, is right on the money, even if it is underpinned by an Old Labour romanticism, and he has a great ear for New Labour gobbledegook. Kerb-crawling, for instance, is described as ‘antisocial public-space behaviour’. Overall, there’s a great deal here that Tories will find sympathy with, particularly if they’re backing Clarke in the leadership battle. Like the roly-poly beer-drinker, Edgar seems to be yearning for a return to the days when politics hadn’t been corrupted by spin doctors and modernisers.

And, finally, to Romance, David Mamet’s new play. I once asked a big Hollywood producer why it was that Billy Wilder hadn’t made a film in the remaining 21 years of his life and he said it was because he didn’t want to tarnish his reputation. Mamet should take a leaf out of Wilder’s book. Romance is quite staggeringly bad. By the time the curtain came down, my head was in my hands and I was audibly groaning. If you have any regard for the author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, avoid like the plague.

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