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Review: NIMBY at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Published 23 June 2011

Bea and James don’t shop at Tescos. They buy local produce, use a combination of renewable energies to power their self-designed house in Islington, agonise about politically correct phraseology and read their children stories about the evils of corporate lorry firms. They are the cream of liberal, ethical and progressive Britain – and they want you to know it.

But unlike most who identify with this tribe, the couple’s moral credentials are put to an unforgiving test when they are forced to accommodate five adults and four children from vulnerable, criminal and mentally unsound backgrounds…in their garden. In this teeth-grindingly witty production, written by emerging writer Lola Stephenson, the NIMBY acronym (Not In My Back Yard) assumes an alarmingly literal meaning, as James and Bea wrestle between upholding their fashionable ethics and preserving their comfortable lifestlyes.

NIMBY makes a host of trenchant points and humorously illuminates plenty of powerful home truths. Through James and Bea, we come to see that being politically and ethically liberal involves more than being a part-time vegetarian, owning an Ian McEwen collection and wrapping your parmesan in cellophane. Praise is due for the attention to such details which highlight the kinds of symbols used in modern class identities.

But for those who are disinterested in didactics, the characters alone would serve you well for an evening of entertainment; most of them are colourful enough to warrant spin-off productions of their own! The uninvited guests described consist of Meg and Paul, sufferers of chronic airy-fairyness, who use the back yard to heal ex-offenders through art, music and new age philosophy so that they can ‘grow with all the other beautiful colours in the world’. Then there’s Max, whose paranoid military psychosis leads him to spend most of the time on stage securing perimeters and checking from enemies. And finally, there’s Sally, a council house prostitute on the low, along with her newborn baby and triplets.

These dissonant personalities inspire extremely fraught relationships, and the living arrangements break down into rows, accusations, madness and deceit – albeit with a light-hearted edge. ‘Remember to breathe’ becomes new age Meg’s mantra in the chaos, words which unwittingly evolve into a tragic theme of the play.

There aren’t many major areas which would be fair to fault in NIMBY. The performances are engrossing, the direction really teases out play’s strong comic elements and the dialogue is astute and sharply funny. Largely, its imperfections could be rectified: line hiccups, inconsistencies in pace and, at times, (largely appropriate) lashings of histrionics.

The only aspect that I found objectionable, and I always do, was the characterisation of Sally: the textbook foul-mouthed chav draped in bling. In Sally’s portrayal I couldn’t help but feel that the play might be cannibalising its own values; there we were, an audience tutored in Kath Kidston and rye bread, laughing at an impoverished prostitute for the sake of it. What does that say about us? The easy two dimensional chav crops up frequently in contemporary theatre, generally getting a hearty laugh, but I find it persistently difficult to stomach. Perhaps this was done on purpose: I’m still not sure.

The shortcomings of the bleeding heart liberal ideology hold enduring appeal to an equally liberal audience keen on self-flagellation. NIMBY may be preaching self-scrutiny to the converted, but it does it with flair, imagination and the kind of humour which comes from seeing what the rest of us overlook. A superb and toe-curling production.

NIMBY play
Venue: Old Red Lion Theatre
Show Dates: Wednesday, June 8 – June 25
Tickets: £14/£12
Box Office: 0844 412 4307
Website: www.redliontheatres.co.uk

Directed by Elly Hopkins
Written by Lola Stephenson