In the runup to every election my building gets flooded with a pile of leaflets from the British National Party, with their carefully-worded messages attempting to disguise their core ideals and make people vote for them in the belief that they no longer represent bigotry. Anders Lustgarten's A Day at the Racists takes this spin-doctoring to its logical extreme by having the BNP field a female, mixed-race candidate, Gina (Thusitha Jayasundera.) One argument about the recent rise in the BNP's popularity is that Labour has betrayed its working-class followers, so Lustgarten centres his story around one such former Labour stalwart, Pete (Julian Littman.) Feeling as if his years of work haven't paid off for him, and angry that his son can't get a council house, Pete starts to find Gina's rhetoric gradually more convincing, until he ends up becoming her campaign manager. Having set up the devil's advocate argument in the first act, of why people might start to be attracted to the BNP, Lustgarten pulls the rug out from under Pete in the second act.
It's a very interesting "what if?" scenario, and well-written with a lot of very dark humour punctuating the serious political points. The production is also fantastically served by director Ryan McBryde and a great cast: Littman and Jayasundera are convincing, Nick Holder as fictional BNP leader Rick is worryingly charming with a hint of something nasty underneath, Vanessa Havell gets to scene-steal in a number of funny small roles, and as an old-school, violent racist thug, Gwilym Lloyd gives one of the most genuinely fucking terrifying performances I've seen on stage for ages. But the evening belongs to Sam Swainsbury as Pete's son Mark, a victim of circumstance who maintains a cheeky enthusiasm and is devoted to his young daughter. I've noticed Swainsbury in things before (and by "noticed" I mean "fancied") most recently The Rivals, but his performance here is something else. Cute and talented, you know that's just going to make me have *bad thoughts.*
Impressive though the play is tonight it was almost overshadowed by a post-show discussion, featuring the author, equality campaigner Justin Baidoo, and the Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge MP (who, thanks to her sitting just along the row from me and speaking within my earshot, I now know actually introduces herself with "Hello, I'm Margaret Hodge MP.") I don't suppose the chances of her getting an easy ride were ever stellar, but surely she put the nail in her own coffin when her very first contribution was to sniffily dismiss the first half of the play as "caricature" because she couldn't imagine the BNP fielding a female, Asian candidate. (As I said at the start of my review I see it as a perfectly acceptable theatrical device to project this kind of extreme; and as Lustgarten countered, there actually is precedent in a Dutch far-right party that has had both a gay man and a Muslim woman as leaders.) From then on it was open season on Hodge as Lustgarten, Baidoo and eventually some of the audience as well laid in to her over New Labour's continuation of Thatcherite policies that may have contributed to people's disillusionment and move to the right. So outnumbered was she, I might have almost felt sorry for her if her response hadn't mainly consisted of an "I know better than you" smile that pretty much confirmed any prejudices you've ever had about politicians. Overall an interesting, bordering-on-the-weird, evening.
A Day at the Racists by Anders Lustgarten is booking until the 27th of March at the Finborough Theatre.