Little England – The Museum of Comedy, London

Writer and Director: Ian Dixon Potter

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

The nature of British identity in the twenty-first century is in considerable flux as we simultaneously try to look back to a once dominate Empire and forwards to whatever world status the UK will have in the next 10-20 years. Ian Dixon Potter’s new play Little England considers the political, economic and socio-cultural divide that resulted in the Leave decision by taking us to Stoke-on-Trent in 2024 where its 70% majority Leave citizens face-up to the realities of the post-Brexit era.  

A widespread manpower shortage means Ralph and his mum Dorothy cannot find a carer until Heidi, a trained but unregistered European nurse, arrives at their door. Leaver Dorothy baulks at first but their new houseguest quickly becomes part of their happy family until Remainer Ralph has one too many arguments with the locals. As tensions escalate in the neighbourhood, informers betray Heidi’s whereabouts.

Dixon Potter has thought very carefully about the scenario he has created, projecting an idea of future England that is small-minded, unwelcoming and bureaucratic, where racism and prejudice are unashamedly out in the open, taking in a much wider canvas than just Euroscepticism. Little England is a warning of what’s to come, and although a lot of the views expressed by the characters are difficult to hear (ridiculous and extreme as they are made to sound), Dixon Potter argues quite convincingly that hatred multiplies and views we thought were left in the 1970s are really just beneath the surface.

Some of the best and most comic moments are in the contextual detail, largely relayed by the voice of Robin Lustig’s newsreader at the start of most scenes telling us that Scotland has won independence, the Prime Minister Jacob Rees-Moggs has built-up both Hadrian’s Wall and another along the Irish border, while Sir Nigel Farage sits comfortably in the House of Lords. All of this is just grounded-enough in today and amplified to create a plausible future state.

Less convincing is the fairly thin plot which never quite settles, vacillating between the burgeoning love story between Ralph and Heidi, and immigration officials tracking her down. Little England is rarely subtle, and many of the scenes are quite didactic as Ralph argues vigorously against various friends and neighbours, proving that Brexit was an economic and personal mistake for the working classes, now much poorer as a result.

Consequently, conversations feel quite unnatural as though unseen fingers are being wagged and scenes become increasingly repetitive. Both friend Maureen (Kate Carthy) and carpet-fitter Bob (Albert Clack) are just extended versions of the same prejudice, but without being quite sure what the play’s key drivers are supposed to be. With a London audience, Dixon Potter is predominantly preaching to the choir without adding anything particularly new to our understanding of why people continue to support Leave.

Although the characters are fairly two-dimensional, all of the actors offer engaging and forceful performances. Richard de Lisle is the author’s mouthpiece, a fiery Ralph frustrated by the circumstantial limitations of his life but develops an affection for Heidi that could be better explored. There is also a chance to think about different kinds of prejudice, and while Ralph’s rant about children and the outcomes of #MeToo make him less likeable it could add edge to the character.

Julia Faulkner’s Dorothy has the biggest trajectory, quietly becoming more accepting of her European carer, but this change of view could be signposted more strongly as an important outcome of tolerance, while Clare Aster ‘s Heidi might be expected to react more strongly to the views she overhears so often.

A rushed final section brings Little England to an unabrupt but unforeseen conclusion, yet some of this threat and danger could be more firmly seeded earlier in the play – characters talk a lot, but the atmosphere is never quite as hostile as it sounds. Ian Dixon Potter’s play has an impassioned argument to make and a potentially interesting set of characters that needs a little more development. It may not be surprising, but this picture of 2024 still offers a chilling prospect for Britain’s future identity.

Runs until 18 November | Image: Contributed

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