No Blacks, No Dogs, No Poles
By Tom O’Brien
Pentameters Theatre, London
Until June 7
★★★ (out of five)
THERE'S an odd symmetry in watching playwright Tom O'Brien's latest work on a night when UKIP confirm their arrival on the British political stage.
Set among a returning Irish emigrant family who have swapped London for Limerick, the two-act play uses racism and prejudice as its cornerstones, but its real focus is on deep-rooted personal secrets and people’s inability to confront their reality or speak honestly of it.
O'Brien's characters are hiding bisexuality, illicit affairs and inconvenient biological circumstance. Friends are two-faced, harbouring secrets from one another, while family members bare resentment over past ills. Only in the wash does everything eventually come out.
The play centres on the dysfunctional Kennedy clan who are in the throes of family drama. Husband and father Con (Matthew Ward) is at odds with his wife Marion (Lucy Aley-Parker) over his indulgence of their obscene, yobbish nephew Jimmy (Jack Bradley).
Meanwhile Con and Marion’s son Michael has returned from Australia with his wife Cathy, an Aboriginal Australian whose decency sets her apart from the prejudicial Kennedys as much as the colour of her skin.
Amid the family fireworks come moments of nostalgia as Con, a former construction worker, recalls 1960’s Cricklewood and Kilburn and the No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish-era where the play gets it’s title from.
O’Brien, a native of County Waterford, now based in Hastings, knows this period well. A former North London labourer, he has since published a number of novels and plays. His evident gift with words is apparent in the flashes of fine dialogue and moments of humour that see the opening act flow at a fine pace as O’Brien sets up the tension that will explode in the second act.
For all these fine moments, however, the play ultimately falters in its rushed execution. While Jack Bradley is, in parts, menacingly magnificent as the violent Jimmy, the remaining cast only deliver adequately.
Most problematic is their Irish accents which toil in and out of Canadian, American, Irish and British. A fringe audience can forgive this but it nonetheless distracts from becoming immersed in the world O’Brien is creating.
There are faults too in its rushed closing moments as O’Brien scrambles to tie up all the loose ends. Each character is layered in complexity and O’Brien’s need to give each resolution at the play’s end is unnecessary and unbelievable. A cleverer writer would have left some ends untied and drawn more power from the isolation and loneliness which one character muses upon.
It means that one leaves No Blacks, No Dogs, No Poles ultimately unfulfilled. Although entertaining, and offering much to muse on, this is a play that doesn’t quite hit home in its final moments as emphatically as its title might suggest.