Burnt Oak: it ain’t all doom and gloom
Brendan O’Neill thinks a play about his hometown is overly concerned with titillating middle-class theatregoers.
Two weeks ago, if you put the name of my hometown Burnt Oak into Google News, you’d be offered two search suggestions: ‘stabbing in Burnt Oak’ and ‘Burnt Oak stabbing’. Admittedly that was shortly after a Brazilian man was stabbed to death by a teenager in a brothel above a Burnt Oak shop. Now Google News offers a third search suggestion: ‘Burnt Oak play.’
Yes, the north-west London suburb loved by few and visited by none, famous only as the birthplace of Boz Boorer (Morrissey’s bassist) and the site of the first-ever Tesco (actually, that’s pretty cool), is now the subject of a play. A real play. Showing in Leicester Square. The premiere of which was attended by Nancy Dell’Olio. The great and the good (well, the relatively influential) have finally put my old stomping ground on the cultural map. To be honest, though, I wish they’d left it off.
It’s not that Burnt Oak: Life and Death in a London Town, written by Burnt Oak boy turned Soho-based plumber-to-the-stars Laurence Lynch, is a bad play. It tells the story of a family on a council estate where taxis refuse to go and police are rarely seen. There’s dad George, former armed robber turned bullshitter who’s always ‘on the sick’ (claiming incapacity benefit), his long-suffering wife Margaret, and their daughter Susan, studying to be a hairdresser so she can go and work on a cruise ship.
Susan falls for Nobby, a chirpy painter and decorator who grew up in a children’s home. In the first half of the play there’s some brilliant banter between Susan and Nobby and also Nobby’s workmate Tel (played by the sublimely deadpan Dan Maclane; EastEnders should snap this guy up). I especially liked Susan and Nobby’s animated chat over beers about a careers advice officer who told Nobby to set his sights lower than being a painter and decorator. ‘Who’s she to talk?’ says Susan. ‘Who leaves school thinking, “I want to be a careers adviser”?’ But Susan and Nobby’s advice-defying ambitions are severely shaken when Susan falls pregnant.
Danielle Flett as Susan is brilliant. Anyone who has ever visited Burnt Oak will instantly recognise the 17-year-old girl she plays: beautiful yet ballsy, all sweetness and light one minute and stroppy the next – Burnt Oak is full of these GWA (girls with attitude). And for those with Burnt Oak blood in their veins (not many, I know) the play has plenty of nostalgia-inducing imagery. The characters go ‘down the Stag’, a reference to the Bald Faced Stag, the pub no one under 30 who valued their balls ever set foot in. They also go ‘down the Beehive’, Burnt Oak’s vaguely more yoof-friendly pub, where I spent pretty much every Saturday night from ages 16 to 18. Nobby’s disdain for south London – ‘It’s a karzi’, he says, ‘I wouldn’t go there in a tank’ – will also be familiar to anyone who hails from London’s north-west (which these days, thanks to Dappy, is tragically known as ‘N-Dubz’).
But much of the play rings untrue, or at least OTT. Nobby’s descent from chirpiness into alcoholism is way too speedy. It’s almost as if, halfway through the writing process, Lynch thought to himself: hold on, plays about working-class lives are supposed to be depressing, not funny. George, Susan’s dad, has potential, not least in his embodiment of the fact that being ‘on the sick’ is not simply a case of feckless men sponging off the state; rather George has pretty much been decommissioned by society, put out to pasture (only in his own cramped, smoky home) by a world with little use for gruff, labouring men. However, George’s temper tantrums and final act of cruelty are cartoonish, cut and pasted, it seems, from recent films that revel in depicting working-class blokes as one dole cheque away from going doolally.
There are two reasons Lynch’s play seems out of touch. The first is that, by his own admission, he hasn’t been back to BO in 20 years, instead plumbing in Soho and getting to know people like Sebastian Horsley (late celebrity smackhead) and Colin Firth (thriving actor). It shows. Even in the young characters’ names. Back in the 1980s I had friends whose dads were called Nobby and Tel, but no youngsters in Burnt Oak today have names like that. Also, the only person I know who still uses phrases like ‘bubble bath’ [laugh], and ‘Life is like a shit sandwich: the more bread [money] you have the less shit you have to eat’, is my oldest brother, and he’s 40. The young in Burnt Oak now speak in the same ‘blackney’ as most other urban youth.
The other reason the play fails to click is because you get the impression that Lynch is depicting working-class life as his theatrical pals expect it to be. He’s almost providing a moral peepshow for the middle classes. He somewhat gave the game away during an interview when he said he wanted to write something ‘along the lines of Nil by Mouth’, the grotesquely voyeuristic film about a wife-beater (Ray Winstone) and his beaten wife (Kathy Burke) directed by Gary Oldman. Like Oldman, Lynch seems to have repackaged his childhood experiences to make them conform to the cultural elite’s view of working-class life: violent, depraved, hopeless.
Now, it’s true that Burnt Oak, founded as a massive council estate in 1922 but later turning into a kind-of suburb, is a very curious place. It’s a tiny working-class enclave surrounded by more comfortable suburbs. Of the 20 very deprived areas in the borough of Barnet, nine are in Burnt Oak (if you knew how big Barnet is and how small Burnt Oak is, you’d be shocked by that stat). The suburbs that directly border Burnt Oak – Edgware, Mill Hill, Hendon – are far nicer, even quite plush. The enclave-like nature of Burnt Oak, its own experience as a ‘shit sandwich’, if you like, squeezed between those who have more bread, has a notable impact. First it means that Barnet Council can largely ignore the place (the only thing it ever builds there are health centres, for all those people so long ‘on the sick’ that they have actually become sick). And second it means that Burnt Oak has a very distinctive sense of itself as the poor but cocky little bruv to better-off but blander suburbs, giving rise to a weird situation where Cockney-speak and a very old-fashioned working-class vibe thrive in this tiny bit of north London.
But it is not all misery and gloom. Not everyone in Burnt Oak gets defeated. I’m not saying I want Lynch and anyone else who writes about working-class life to give us happy endings or knees-up-Mother-Brown chumminess (please don’t), but does every piece of culture about less well-off bits of London have to have an abusive husband, a put-upon wife, a daughter whose aspirations are trounced, and a young lad who turns out to be No Good? Perhaps if Lynch had spent more time remembering what life in Burnt Oak is really like – harsh, yes, but also funny, fruitful, weird, stirring – rather than seeking to give his Soho cohorts a Nil By Mouth-style glimpse into fucked-up families, this would have been a better theatrical moment.
Burnt Oak: Life and Death in a London Town is showing at the Leicester Square Theatre until 3 September 2011.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.