Words and Lyrics: Ian Dixon Potter
Music: Neil Thompson
Director: Jack Jones
Ian Dixon Potter’s dire musical comedy Love and Hate in Stoke on Trent has been through several iterations in its brief but over-long lifespan. As a play, Hiding Heidi, it had a fringe outing in 2017. An updated version of the work renamed Little England had another fringe showing a year later. The White Bear Theatre’s newest version is proof, if proof were needed, that tarting up lazy polemic with a clutch of derivative songs rarely makes a show any less trite or one-dimensional. Perhaps the producers were hoping for third-time lucky. The rest of us can only wish for three strikes and you are out. Please, someone, give this show the decent burial it merits.
Stoke-on-Trent voted 70% leave in the EU referendum, earning itself a tabloid label as the UK’s Brexit capital. Dixon Potter offers up a simple-minded dystopian version of the town, peopled by boilerplate racists and xenophobes, whose dwindling remaining Remainers suffer under the yoke of a dictatorship led by Prime Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg. The government is rebuilding Hadrian’s wall, whether to keep the Scots out or the English in is unclear. Machine-gun toting Swat teams from the Unregistered and Illegal Aliens Enforcement Office roam the city in search of unregistered baristas.
Brexit-voting Dorothy (Kate Carthy), a kind of poor woman’s Nadine Dorries, lives with her anxious Europe-loving, but love-starved son Ralph (Matt Williams). She is recovering from a stroke and needs a live-in carer, not that this inhibits her from delivering a rousing, passionate hymn to little-England nationalism called Too Many Foreigners. Enter Heidi (Anastasia Aush), a cut-and-paste archetypal care-worker from a sort of oddly comic bohemian European country called Lichtenberg. Heidi tells us in her opening number that she adores England’s “mountains green and weeping willows” but “England just doesn’t love me”.
At the risk of heavy fines Dorothy and Ralph offer Heidi work, under the condition the paperless carer hides in the cupboard should informing neighbour Maureen (Jane Speare) or the immigration inspector (in the form of an embarrassed-looking Neil Summerville) call. Will Dorothy’s dislike of immigrants melt in the face of Heidi’s manifest European charms? Will Ralph and Heidi find love? Will the inspector call?
Dixon Potter does not seem to like Leavers much. His stokies exist on a continuum that runs from mere Daily Express-reading reactionaries to flatulent, lazy, goose-stepping, boozing bigots who hate Muslims almost as much as they loath gays. Without a scintilla of space for nuance or empathy even the most ardent of Remainers might be tempted to conclude, ‘give these people a break’. His token Remainer, Ralph, categorises women as either “steerage” or “blue stockings” and appears to think the only good thing about the English is that they are not Scots. At least the show’s evident (presumably spoof) disdain for its characters is even-handed.
It is hard to detect any artistic theme in Love and Hate in Stoke on Trent beyond a burning desire to relitigate conflicts from which most of the rest of the country is striving to move on. The show is too heavy-handed to work as satire and too clumsy to work as farce. Mostly it feels like watching a bad 70s sitcom, set in a GB News studio, involving a shouting match between Nigel Farage (here reimagined as Rees-Mogg’s “dago” taunting Foreign Secretary) and a marauding troop of vexed Guardian newspaper columnists.
Laughs, such as they are, come mostly from a sense of ongoing despair at unfolding events. A charitable interpretation might be Dixon Potter is making a comment on the right-wing echo-chamber he supposes drove unthinking millions to vote for Brexit. Fair enough as polemic, but the Corbynite propaganda he offers in return is barely distinguishable in its inability to acknowledge a legitimate opposing point of view. Mid-way through a show that is at least 45-minutes too long Dorothy shouts to her son, “you’re like a one-tracked record”. Right back at you, Mr Dixon-Potter.
Aush has a lovely, fresh singing voice that is mostly wasted. Williams struggles manfully with his main number, In My Head I’m European, set to a mangled synth version of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy. Summerville manages to not cringe too obviously when singing “I’m white, I’m male, I’m straight, I’m English – it doesn’t get much better than that”.
If you like, metaphorically speaking, being repeatedly hit over the head with a mallet, go see this show. Otherwise, you are better off doing the dishes.
Runs until 27 May 2023