If a British-Polish lesbian romance mixed with Hull City’s promotion to the Premier League and Brexit sounds like an unlikely recipe for a coherent piece of musical theatre, that’s because it is. Us Against Whatever, a new production from gig theatre specialists Middle Child, is an ambitious but ultimately baffling effort to explore the motivations behind one northern city’s Leave vote in 2016, through the medium of what is billed as ‘karaoke cabaret’.
What this means, in practice, is that almost the whole show is set in a Hull karaoke bar, with the characters periodically delivering short blasts of their favourite performance numbers – English and Polish – by way of insight into their inner beings and to compliment James Frewer’s original score. This was a smart device and, along with Emma Thornett’s charismatic opening number as a form of steampunk Liza Minelli MC, the production got off to an atmospheric start.
And so, it continued, with the first real action centred around the night of the 2008 football Championship play-off Final, which saw Hull City join football’s top flight for the first time. This first section, with 16-year-old Steph (Josie Morley) kissing newly-arrived Polish teenager Anna (Edyta Budnik) amid scenes of collective jubilation seemed to be setting up a plausible route through to June 23, 2016. Here, we were witnessing the hope of the ‘Number One crap town 2003’ that things might finally be on the up. We’d next see the financial crash that came just months later, and Hull’s new start shattered; the arrival of austerity and a forgotten people pushed to breaking point. Except that’s not what came next. Instead, we had an over-long section – originally intended by the production team as a standalone Act – about the death of Steph’s father from heart disease in 2012, which made fleeting references to the impact of his unemployment but was more about personal grief than any wider point. A scene depicting Anna’s battles with prejudice and low wage work were a tantalising counterpoint but, like the status of her ongoing connection to Steph, these themes were never fully explored.
At the start of Act Two, suddenly, we had leapt to referendum night in the bar; the football flags replaced by Union Jacks and the promised scrutiny of a city’s motivations replaced by a cartoonish spitting racist. Yes, there was a tetchy conversation between Leave-voting Steph and her Remainer, back-from-university friend Tara (Severine Howell-Meri) that rattled through a standard ‘Let’s stick it to the man’ vs ‘Brexiteers are exploiting your dissatisfaction’ debate. Quite how we shuddered to a halt at that sticky bar table, however, having raced from play-off day via a funeral and not much else, was a mystery.
The lengthy focus on Steph’s sudden bereavement in the middle section rather than on her wider life experience further clouded whatever conclusion was being reached. Whether cause-and-effect between her dad’s death and her Leave vote was being implied, or whether that was a tangental plot line crow-barred in for other reasons, was not clarified. Either way, the route from A to Brexit was never articulated with the wit and nuance that the early scenes promised, while audience participation karaoke during the interval felt like an art school pastiche of a working mens’ club at best and a mockery of the very people the play purported to be understanding at worst.
Three stars, then, representing an uneasy equilibrium between the originality, promise and energy with which this show started and the unsatisfactory way in which it played out.
Images by Sam Taylor.