It’s understandable if you think British theater holds up a burnished mirror to the bourgeois in the audience. Theater revolutions come and go, but no one absorbs them better than the spongy, resilient middle classes of England. For centuries, British theater has been dominated by the image of a white middle-class country. When have we seen a black or Asian character in the plays of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn and David Hare? (Or, come to that, in the work of the fashionable Irish playwrights?)
Three new dramas in town from a new generation of British playwrights are transforming the traditional stage picture and holding up a mirror to a very different England.
Ayub Khan-Din’s admired Rafta, Rafta, currently at the Acorn on Theater Row, was first produced in London at the National; the playwright has literally built his seriocomic portrait of Indian life on the ashes of old England.
Rafta, Rafta (which means “softly, softly” in Hindi) is based on an almost forgotten 1963 British comedy All In Good Time, by Bill Naughton. (It became the completely forgotten 1966 film The Family Way, starring the adult Hayley Mills in a brief nude scene.) The late Bill Naughton is best known for Alfie, but the film about the Cockney Casanova played by Michael Caine is atypical of Naughton’s working-class North Country comedies.
The original All in Good Time, like the Khan-Din adaptation, is set in the Lancashire industrial town of Bolton, where Naughton was raised. Nearby is Salford, Manchester, where Mr. Khan-Din was born. (And for the proud record, Manchester is my hometown.) Mr. Khan-Din is best known for his mixed-race comedy East Is East, and his daring transformation of Naughton’s lovable old comedy into a 21st-century Lancashire-Indian generation war is a delightful masterstroke.
It isn’t a first, however. In 2003, Tanika Gupta adapted Harold Brighthouse’s beloved Manchester comedy Hobson’s Choice (1915), and turned its tale of a dictatorial Salford shoemaker into a contemporary comedy about an Asian family in the rag trade. Brighthouse’s sentimental classic and Naughton’s social comedy belong to the same North Country school of popular theater, and at their heart, both are about traditional English values, assimilation and class.
OUTWARDLY, RAFTA RAFTA could be a knockabout, end-of-the-pier farce. Nervous newlyweds return to the groom’s cramped family home, where they keep failing to consummate their marriage. “Tap on the wall anytime,” says Dad, who sleeps with Mum in the bedroom next door to them. “I’m a light sleeper.”
In that (very) broad sense, the piece is as much a period bedroom farce as the current revival of Boeing-Boeing. And Mr. Khan-Din (or Bill Naughton) has provided us with a perfect illustration of the mysterious essence of British farce in one line: “How do you mean it hasn’t happened?”
Though there are six people in the newlyweds’ bed—the married couple, plus two sets of parents—the comedy is happily free of pop psychology. Better still, Mr. Khan-Din has created a vividly affectionate portrait of an Anglo-Asian family divided by its culture and values. How many other British plays have offered us anything similar to Rafta, Rafta’s father, Eeshwar, reminiscing about his wedding in India and the day he received the gift of a water buffalo? (His uninterested British-born son, Atul, got a BlackBerry.)
In the 1960s West End production of All in Good Time, the colossus Donald Wolfit played the uncomprehending father, a sentimental tyrant. Here, it’s the slight and most fine Ranjit Chowdhry, who leads a relaxed, first-rate cast. The outcome is an unusual and amiable new play (with a happy ending), and a director, Scott Elliott of the New Group, who excels. So does Mr. Elliott’s set designer, Derek McLane, who conjures up exactly the claustrophobic terraced house in England known as a “back-to-back” or “two up, two down.” They’re okay if you can’t afford a castle—not so great if you’re honeymooning with your parents.
DAMASCUS—PART OF the annual Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters—is an ambitious comedy written by a leading Scottish playwright, David Greig, about the Middle East (of all unfunny subjects); it’s set in the foyer of a small, anonymous hotel in the Syrian capital. There, a resident pianist, Elena, functions as an extremely depressed Greek chorus. You’d be feeling low, too, if you were a Ukrainian Christian Marxist transsexual playing “Lara’s Theme” to no one in particular.
There’s a lot to relish in Mr. Greig’s unusual play—not least his wry sense of clashing global cultures; his scary awareness of the encompassing threat of unknown languages and random violence; and the marvelous central performance of his star, Ewen Bremner. Mr. Bremner (of Trainspotting) is perfect as the bumbling Paul, a Scotsman who arrives jet-lagged and stupidly innocent in Damascus to peddle an English-language educational textbook to the Syrian government.
Alas, any man hoping to sell the Syrians a textbook that includes a little moral fable about a Rabbi Samuels is so stupid he must be deranged. Furthermore, Paul’s idea of guilty romance with Muna, the uncompromising Arab intellectual (and Palestinian mouthpiece), is unbelievable; even more so her coy attraction to him. (But hotel lobbies are lonely places: Ask Elena, the miserable pianist.)