Review: My Country at Cambridge Arts Theatre divided Britain expressed on stage

Penny Layden as Britania and Christian Patterson as Cymru in My Country

Penny Layden as Britania and Christian Patterson as Cymru in My Country - Credit: Archant

What the EU referendum and this month’s general election showed is that Britain is a divided nation: rich and poor, young and old, town and country. The play, My Country, based on interviews with people from across the regions about Brexit, laced together by poet Carol Ann Duffy, expresses these divisions.

A meeting is called by a distressed Britannia so she can hear from all her people, from from Northern Ireland and Scotland (remain) The North East, The Midlands, The South West and Wales (Leave). In the end she hangs her head in despair.

Because the campaigns which led up to the referendum and the result have been analysed until the bones were picked clean, there is not much in the play to surprise the audience. Coming from the National Theatre, it is described as a work in progress and may improve. Currently there is little to explain why people voted Leave or Remain. beyond a few predictable sayings. Apparently, we voted on emotion, not reason.

Perhaps that’s the point, that the vote was an emotional response rather than a thought-out one and that there was scant information for people to make a reasoned decision on. Much of the information that was given out, like the £350 million that leaving the EU would generate for the NHS, was false.

The play opens amusingly with Penny Layden as Britannia coming on stage while the house lights are still on, telling the audience, with some relief in her voice: “You all turned up. I thought we should have some witnesses.”

If the work has a motif, it is “listen”. We should listen to the people we disagree with. It’s human nature to listen only to those who share our views. That’s why Brexit was such a shock to the remainers. Generally, they had spent their time in a comfortable bubble with others who agreed with them.

There are great performances in this piece and when the cast broke out into song and dance representing their region - including a burst of Riverdance for Northern Ireland - the audience loved it. England, of course was represented by a Morris Dance, which brought a chuckle.

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If the analysis of the referendum tells us anything, it is that the the vote was less to do with the EU than it was about what it is like living and working in the UK today. Those people who were unhappy about that life, voted to change it. This play, though it has some enjoyable moments, doesn’t show up the strength of those views or argue the case for either. It doesn’t add to a debate which has now gone stale.