“England & Son”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Roundabout @ Summerhall – Roundabout
13:10, 14:40. Duration 1 hour.
To 27 August (not 22)

20 August 2023
Maggie Rose in Edinburgh

This new play at Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre attached to the Summerhall venue examines questions of identity in post-Brexit Britain.

The piece is written by Ed Edwards who was successful at this same performance space in 2018 with his play The Political History of Smack and Crack, a hopeless love story set against a background of political dissent and atypical drug use under Margaret Thatcher.

This play which was also staged at HOME Manchester was written by Edwards specifically for the political comedian Mark Thomas who has made the bold decision to direct himself. Thomas has cited Alexei Sayle as a major influence and his observational skills can be seen here in the presentation style that is assembled from a series of snapshots or shards.

The ‘England’ in the title points to the country, but is also the lead character’s surname. This is a clever ruse as statements that are made about the individual’s conduct can also be seen as actions by the country. As the play opens, the protagonist, who is homeless, is pulling himself out of a waste bin where he has slept for the night after which he stares in horror as his friend, who was sleeping beside him, falls into the maw of a waste crusher. The idea of people being discarded is suggested in a subtle manner.

England then carries us back in time, re-enacting his desperately unhappy childhood, his fraught relationship with his father, his drug addiction and prison sentence. The extreme physicality of Thomas’s performance grabs the audience’s attention and imagination from the very beginning.

Speaking in a catalogue of different accents, he continually switches roles. At one moment he is England, the son, the next moment, England, the father, the next, those people who have made his life a misery – the care home workers, the police and prison wardens.

We find ourselves witnesses to some of the crucial, cruel turning points in his eventful life. The play also has an overtly political dimension, touching on the father’s army experiences in Malaysia which are seen through a lens that is critical of Britain’s imperial past.

The playwright has dwelt on his own time in prison over his varied writing career mentioning that he read Balzac, Tolstoy and Dickens. You can see a medley of tones comes through in this heavy-hitting piece.