‘Do you feel British?’ Rahul asks the audience, as he bounds onto the stage in t shirt and jeans, with a twinkle in his eye, looking like any other teenager. True Brits is an exploration of identity – how it is formed, the different facets influencing it, and what it means to individuals and the groups in which they live. Taking place between the bombings of July 2005 and the London 2012 Olympics, writer Vinay Patel has created a play in which Rahul, an 18 year old second generation Asian from Bexleyheath, South London deals with life, facing up to bullying, family expectations, university, and dating. In short, all the normal things that a teenager experiences – even a British Asian one. The main message is that maybe, despite his looks and heritage, he is not that different. In fact, according to a study that Patel read, the group most identifying with being British are young British Asians.
To many in the audience it seems ludicrous that this point needs to be made. But as the play unfolds we start to recognize certain things. The unease felt when someone appearing to be Muslim gets on a train. Fear triggered by a bag in a crowded place. The assumption that certain life paths are there for some people. The belief that marriage must be to someone from a similar background. ‘Innocent’ racist jokes become more sinister when uttered by children singing on the bus. We might like to believe that we live in an enlightened world, but stereotyping, ignorance and prejudice still play out on the streets and in the lives of so many places and people in Britain.
Patel is clearly writing from experience: the two inspirations behind True Brits were “that the society I grew up in had tossed me aside after 7/7, and that during the Olympics this was my home, always was and likely always would be”, he said in an interview with A Younger Theatre. It’s clear how disaffection might embed itself in young people, and not everyone channels it creatively like Patel. Despite evident pride in his country, jubilation at the Olympics, his best friend fighting in the British army, we’re left with a sense Rahul will always experience that feeling of being an ‘other’ even as he identifies as British. He may appear to move seemlessly through the choices of Thames or the Ganges, Reeboks or turbans, London or Bombay, chips or rice, but deep down it is not so easy. The kind of feverish and potent pride in the country that we see on stage does not always mean acceptance, and equally embracing British culture does not mean a denial of heritage and family.
Actor David Mumeni is engaging throughout the 70 minute one man show, shifting accents between the posh voices of his girlfriend and his family, the cockney rhymes of bullies, and the discriminatory tones of police pretending to be friendly during their random checks. The set design is minimal and unchanging, the attention very much being on the words and emotion conveyed. Rave reviews followed its first outing in Edinburgh, and will do after this run at the Vaults. Whatever you do, don’t miss out next time.
The first play from new talent Vinay Patel, True Brits is directed by Tanith Lindon, produced by Rich Mason Productions and supported by HighTide Festival Theatre.