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Friends disunited

I went to the theatre on Tuesday night. The Union Theatre in Southwark, south east London, to be exact.

Built under railway arches (you can hear and feel the vibrations from the trains passing overhead), it's a small, award-winning fringe theatre with around 100 seats that can be booked in advance but are otherwise unreserved.

Instead they are allocated on a first come first served basis with the audience admitted in groups of ten:

Once you have checked in with a member of our staff, you will be given a token, with a number from 1-6, and this number will be the group you’ll go into the theatre (10 number 1’s, 10 number 2’s etc).

Arrive early, as I did with my son Ruari, and you can eat and drink in the theatre cafe or sit outside in the slightly misleadingly named ‘beer garden’.

This month (until October 20) the Union Theatre is hosting 'People Like Us', a play about Brexit by Julie Burchill and Jane Robins. The play, which has attracted a fair bit of publicity, is described thus:

How far would you go to save your closest friendships from being washed away by the tide of history? This is the question the five members of a London book group - pompous Lothario Ralph, judgemental minx Stacey, self-righteous coquette Clemence, thirsty straight-shooter Frances and rosy-spectacled scapegoat Will - must ask themselves when the fight for the future of Europe becomes a domestic battleground of secrets and lies as the personal and the political, the sexual and the sectarian, clash and implode.

In the two years since the UK voted for sovereignty, endless Parliamentary horse-trading has all but eradicated the visceral excitement of Freedom Day. What remains is the violent sundering which has cleaved husband from wife, brother from sister, parent from child - and friend from friend. In this play about sex and Brexit, books and friendship, Julie Burchill and Jane Robins examine the true cost of daring to pop one’s own social bubble and ask the question - can we only ever really be friends with people like us?

The idea came from Robins, a former BBC journalist. She took it to Burchill and together they wrote a play that has united critics because the verdict from the metropolitan reviewers is virtually unanimous – 'People Like Us' is a turkey.

‘Excruciatingly bad, painfully partisan’ (The Stage)
‘Cantankerous Brexit riposte is sour rather than refreshing’ (Evening Standard)
‘Burchill’s clichéd Brexit drama is Friends for bores’ (The Times)
‘People Like Us could have been a play about friendship. Unfortunately, it’s a play about friends who keep yelling at each other about Brexit.’ (Guardian)

Even the Telegraph (‘Julie Burchill's Brexit play offers a close union with boredom’) struggled to find anything positive to say.

Thankfully I was unaware of all this so I approached the evening with an open mind. Having seen it my verdict is, it’s not great but nor is it the car crash suggested by those reviews.

It’s true that ‘People Like Us’ takes a while to warm up. Laughs are initially few and far between and I can’t remember Brexit being mentioned once in the first ten or 15 minutes.

Thereafter however there were some amusing moments and [spoiler alert] the fight that broke out towards the end was well executed and did make me laugh.

Unfortunately, the characters - with one exception - were generally unloveable. Even the pro-Brexit characters (and this is a pro-Brexit play) were shouty and unpleasant.

But perhaps that was deliberate. After all, intolerance breeds intolerance and it can’t be a surprise that those who are intolerant of the referendum result have provoked an equally angry reaction from some who voted to leave.

The friendship issue is something else. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that real friends don’t fall out over politics, not even Brexit.

To be honest the issue hasn’t really arisen for me because most of my friends (and friendly acquaintances) voted, like me, for Brexit.

Of those who voted to remain there are two distinct groups. I can discuss Brexit with the first without having an argument because we respect each other’s opinions even though we disagree.

The same can’t be said of the second group. The point is, each side knows that and so we have an unwritten agreement not to mention it, or not to rise to the bait if the subject does come up.

I’m perfectly comfortable with that and as far as I’m aware I haven’t lost a single friend to Brexit (not that I have many friends to lose!).

In fact, the only ‘friends’ I have lost weren’t friends at all. They were merely people I had met, liked, and then followed on Twitter before their obsessive tweets about Brexit proved a bit too much.

I still like them, I just don’t want to read their increasingly deranged thoughts on a subject on which we will never agree. If I ever see them in person however I will greet them with no less enthusiasm than before.

Anyway, thanks to a mutual friend, I was introduced to Jane Robins, co-writer of ‘People Like Us’, during the interval. The play, she told us, is a “work in progress”.

Would I recommend it? In all honesty, probably not. While it’s refreshing to see a ‘pro-Brexit’ play on stage, I did think that an opportunity for some really biting satire had been lost.

Then again, with a running time of two hours (including interval) it didn’t overstay its welcome and I never felt bored.

What I would recommend without hesitation is the Union Theatre. If you’re ever in the area do pop in, if only for a drink or a bite to eat.

Also available for private hire.

Update: Rod Liddle writes, ‘Critics hated Julie Burchill’s Brexit play. What does that say about them?’ (Spectator).

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