A cartoonish look at migration: Europe at the Donmar reviewed

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

Europe. Big word. Big theme. It was used by David Greig as the title of his 1994 play about frontiers in the age of mass migration. The setting is a railway station in eastern Europe and it opens like a kids’ TV show with each character entering and doing something ‘typical’. Everyone is either good or bad. The stationmaster is a bullying xenophobe. His deputy, Adele, is a meek, well-meaning housewife unhappily married to a dim, angry factory worker whose unemployed mates are as stupid as he is, apart from one who wants to go travelling and another who makes stacks of evil cash out of smuggling.

Two migrants arrive, father and daughter. The father is a sublimely intelligent amateur philosopher with a fluffy grey beard and a habit of speaking in epigrams. His beautiful low-pitched voice makes him sound like Leonard Cohen singing a puppy to sleep. The daughter is a cool, elegant beauty who mistrusts everyone she meets. Is she hiding something? The script takes an hour to introduce us to this uneasy world of sophisticated newcomers and angry locals, and it’s not hard to guess how the fault lines will develop. At the first act curtain, an express train comes hurtling through the station without stopping. Quite a weak climax.

Things improve in act two. The characters start to change a bit. The nasty stationmaster finds his soulful and generous side after a conversation with the wise old migrant. His deputy Adele turns out to be a covert lesbian who springs out of the closet and discovers sexual fulfilment on the station roof. Meanwhile the thick angry factory workers vent their rage on the kindly, docile, intelligent, generous, sensitive, talented and far-sighted migrants.

At the curtain call, the applause that greeted this fairy tale was close to hysterical. The crowd, mostly Remainers I would guess, seemed delighted by the portrayal of migration as a contest between brainy, hardworking incomers and thick, violent, home-grown skinheads. The reality is more complex, of course, but the audience preferred the cartoon version — new, good; old, bad — because it makes fewer demands on the intellect.

This is the debut production from the Donmar’s new boss, Michael Longhurst, who says he stumbled on Greig’s script in a second-hand bookshop. He recalls being smitten by a speech in which the canny smuggler ‘praises a geographical border as a magical money-line’. This is the defining assertion of the play but it bears little scrutiny. Most borders are the product of geography, not of economics and it’s daft to suggest that every national frontier is a plot to enrich capitalists at the expense of penniless exiles. If the Donmar sincerely opposes borders it can abolish its own, the box office, and invite all-comers to this show for free.

Kids in the 1990s had Harry Potter. A decade earlier everyone was reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾. The book has been turned into a musical by a team from the Curve in Leicester where Mole’s creator Sue Townsend lived. I took my son, aged 13 and six days, who knew nothing of Adrian Mole before the show. He loved it.

Adrian’s drab, lower-middle-class family has been massively glammed up for the West End. His morose dad is played by the dashing ladykiller Andrew Langtree. Pauline, his mum, is unrecognisable. In the book she’s a long-suffering frump who chops her hair short and flirts with radical feminism. Here she’s played by the musical star and all-round sex goddess Amy Ellen Richardson, who looks as if she’s just jumped out of the cake at a billionaire’s birthday party. At the show we saw, Barry Kent was played by little Charlie Stripp whose freakishly long hair and intimidating manner seemed all the scarier because of his modest stature. Michael Hawkins played Adrian as a loveable goofball with a sensible hair-do and owlish glasses like a trainee BBC newsreader. Matilda Hopkins brilliantly captured the prim and supercilious manner of the icy Pandora.

The only quibble, from my son, was that the show was aimed more at adults than at troubled teens. Among this crowd of stars we had no hesitation in awarding top honours to the magnificent and ultra-versatile John Hopkins. He played a flirty neighbour, an angry teacher and a swottish schoolgirl in a skirt. And every time he appeared, in fact every time he twitched his nose, he threatened to set off another tidal wave of mirth. Hopkins is a sublimely gifted comedian who happens to have the chiselled looks of a male model and the rippling physique of a professional prize fighter. Yet everything he does is hilarious. It used to be thought that a clown couldn’t be sexy, but movie stars such as Owen Wilson and Vincent Vaughn have disproved that thesis. Hopkins is on their level, or ought to be. A world-class comic talent.

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