Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 11: Pub Quiz is Life by Richard Bean (2009)
‘I’d go to the theatre if I thought that I might see someone like meself up on stage’.
(Bean 2009: 27).
I bought a whole bunch of Richard Bean’s plays last year for a research project on his work. His plays’ subversive humour is refreshing, his ambition to stage epic stories which span generations is inspiring, and his commitment to represent people often marginalised in British theatre brings entertaining results. If you see his techniques as a little paint by numbers or his brush strokes sometimes too bold, that’s understandable. His plays might have a ‘sock it to the liberal left’ attitude, and often have popular appeal, but they also address important issues in contemporary Britain in a dynamic and engaging way.
Pub Quiz is Life focuses on Lee. He’s just returned to his hometown of Hull after serving in Afghanistan. He’s unemployed, been kicked out by his wife, been trying to persuade his drug addict father not to give up on being treated for MS, and is being hassled by crime boss Woody to join his gang. Meanwhile, he’s fed up of the teachers always winning the local pub quiz and so sets up and trains his own team. It’s made up of him, his dad (Bunny, an old fisherman and docker), Woody, and Melissa, an educated newbie who’s part of a team wanting to regenerate Hull.
Bean is proud of his Hull roots. Toast (currently touring) is an incredible and mysterious play which focuses on a group of men working in a northern bread factory. Their jobs are laborious, but work provides a retreat from their problems at home. Likewise, Under the Whaleback and Harvest traces the lives of Hull trawler men and pig farmers (respectively) down the generations, exploring the decline in these jobs and therefore entire communities. Pub Quiz is Life is also interested in the idea of male identities being so closely linked to work. ‘It’s better to die with dignity knowing who you are’, Bunny says, ‘than to die on the dole’ (Bean 2009: 69).
But it’s the idea of the changing face of Britain that is really interesting, something which is explored more in England People Very Nice. Characters in Pub Quiz is Life proudly argue that Hull should have beat Luton for the worst town award. Meanwhile, Melissa is part of Hull Advance which wants to build a dry ski slope and more bistros to attract the rich people who live in the nearby Wolds. But does that come at the expense of diminishing the town’s heritage and history of working class industries? But the play is partly based on a pub quiz at the Rose and Crown pub in Stoke Newington! It may seem churlish or a moot point, but it does give off a feel of a playwright living in Greater London taking this setting and giving it a northern working class gloss to add more of a sense of character.
When writing about Bean’s work in an academic way, I saw others refer to the plays and their jokes as ‘flavoursome’ or ‘divisive’, which often ignored just how funny they are. Pub Quiz is Life is no exception; there are some cracking one liners in the text. Plus, there’s Mabel, the landlady, who is hilarious as she recounts about her many ex-husbands and drops sexual innuendoes aplenty into the quiz questions. But to what does the humour amount? I think there’s something daring about Bean’s humour. Furthermore, it never feels crow-barred in to the script just for the sake of it. In short, when is a knob gag not just a knob gag? When it feels true to the close-knit, often male (or masculine), often working class worlds which Bean presents: Toast, Great Britain, The English Game.
It’s a funny play which paints a pressing if slightly cartoonish picture of contemporary Britain. Looking ahead to Bean’s new play The Nap, I’m expecting a northern setting, entertaining characters, and the odd knob gag.
The Nap is playing at The Crucible, Sheffield until 2nd April.
Toast is touring until 9th April. Visit: http://www.toasttheplay.com/