Kerry Jackson is a grafter. She’s come from a broken family, escaped an abusive relationship and survived a sexual assault that has resulted in her having to give up the subsequent child that she had. She’s also incredibly right-wing, unbelievably crass and cringingly inappropriate in her political incorrectness. With her vociferous views on politics, race and homelessness to name but a few, it is therefore uniquely clever of playwright April De Angelis to have created a character that is undeniably awful yet weirdly likeable.
Kerry is a working-class girl who is taking life by the horns and forging her own destiny. She has opened her very own Tapas restaurant in trendy Walthamstow Village. This is just the first of many nicely written contradictions in De Angelis’ new play. Kerry wants to fight back against the “gentrification of the village” but does so by creating a trendy new Spanish restaurant – one that is about as authentically Spanish as a weekend in Benidorm.
The antithesis to Kerry’s barbed tongue and ferocious views is her neighbour Stephen. A middle-aged, widowed, philosophy teacher with a woke teenage daughter – he is thoughtful, charitable and about as far left in his politics as Kerry is to the right. Caught in a spiral of grief with his daughter, following the recent death of his wife, he is searching for escape, and Kerry provides it – opposites attract, after all. Stephen’s cotton wool wrapping of his daughter is intolerable to Kerry who lacks patience and diplomacy at every turn.
When a young homeless man comes into the frame, the divisions are drawn and opposing views quickly rise to the surface. But here is where the contradictions set this darkly comic new play apart and where some of the clichés are – only narrowly – avoided. This is not just good versus evil or right versus wrong. De Angelis explores all of the grey area in between the judgmentally black-and-white viewpoints. It’s by no means a deep or searching exploration, but it is one that flips the perceptions of these colourfully drawn characters.
Indhu Rubasingham directs a slick production with neat use of Richard Kent’s revolving set. The second act gets a bit stodgy as De Angelis tries to pick out some of the issues raised and give them a bit more heft. Rubasingham takes her foot off the gas at this point and things slow down a little too much. A highlight however is a ridiculous karaoke medley performed by Fay Ripley’s Kerry as part of an awkwardly placed memorial. She is loud and proud with Ripley clearly loving the shock value of her gaudy filter-free restaurateur. She is openly uneducated, a self-proclaimed philosopher and wears her heart very firmly on her sleeve. It’s a great comic performance.
Michael Gould’s Stephen is all pent up and struggling to cope. He is involved in a homeless charity and is forthright in opposing Kerry’s views on Michael Fox’s young and intelligent Will, currently living on the streets – yet when asked to offer his spare room to the young man, his answer is very much in the negative. Assumptions of Will also turnabout when some of his own views, including those on capital punishment, rise to the surface. It’s another nice flip from De Angelis.
Kitty Hawthorne is a nicely constructed Alice, full of anxiety and distrust of the world around her, she is upset by just about everything and rather grandly believes us to be caught in an “evolutionary dead end”. Madeline Appiah gives a more balanced performance as Athena, a chef that is working illegally due to an administrative error, while Gavin Spokes is an ex-policeman with his sights set on Kerry.
The usual National Theatre audience may well balk at the thought of a leave-voting leading character in their midst. For me, however, I enjoyed the irreverence shown towards both sides of the political spectrum. There are genuinely funny lines as well as moments that will make you squirm. Much like a table full of tapas, there are dishes to enjoy and some that leave a nasty taste in your mouth – but it’s the coming together of the whole that makes it enjoyable.
This theatrical sitcom is schematic but full of laughs with a cracking central performance by Fay Ripley
3 stars out of 5
Review at a glance
Imagine the sitcom Miranda, but with prejudice, politics and savage wit on the agenda instead of whimsy, and you’re halfway to April de Angelis’s odd but enjoyable romp. It puts an uneducated, 52 year-old, leave-voting Essex woman in charge of a tapas bar in smug Walthamstow Village, and gives the assumptions and pieties of both sides of that social divide a proper going over. It’s schematic and frankly unbelievable but it made me laugh a lot and features a cracking central performance by Fay Ripley.
Her Kerry has a slo-mo estuary accent, an un-chic wardrobe and ‘Dave’ inked on her bum, but she also has middle-class aspirations for her restaurant, El Barco. Unsubtly, she tries to get local worthy and woolly liberal Stephen (Michael Gould), a philosophy teacher, on side in her campaign to stop a homeless man, Will (Michael Fox) begging outside and defecating by her bins.
Stephen and his self-righteous 19 year-old daughter Alice (Kitty Hawthorne, in a poised stage debut), who are both grieving his dead wife, are horrified. But Kerry’s frankness also unfreezes him and Alice starts working in the restaurant to assuage her sorrow.
And Kerry’s attitudes are not uniformly gammonish, She is great mates – or so it appears – with her black chef Athena (Madeline Appiah, splendidly understated), who is working illegally because her own father, an academic, failed to guarantee her settled status.
But tentative bridges built across various divides are soon detonated. The sympathy that Stephen and Alice extend to the book-reading Will curdles when he turns out to hate Albanians and favour the death penalty.
The tentative romance between Kerry and Stephen is challenged when ex-policeman Warren (Gavin Spokes) turns up. He’s sexist, racist and gauche, but he also collects pottery figurines and offers to replace her industrial fridge. So all of that’s on the table, too. Kerry asks Stephen if he thinks she’s a slag or “too common”: clearly the latter is worse.
De Angelis’s script is packed with provocative ideas and Indhu Rubasingham’s production steams along. There’s always a new joke or a new social bombshell set to explode, usually at the expense of depth. We learn more about Will’s past than Kerry’s or Athena’s and a couple of shocking revelations are thrown in that starkly highlight questions of responsibility, and misplaced guilt. Throughout, De Angelis pushes into the idea of where responsibility lies. And she asks us all where we stand, in judging her characters.
But Ripley’s Kerry is also hilarious, earthily charismatic and an unusual figure to front a play at the National. Is it patronising that a mostly middle-class team has put her there? Maybe that’s part of the point. You could tie yourself in knots forever over the complications and questions this play throws up, but it is ultimately a theatrical sitcom: engineered confrontations, sudden revelations, big laughs.