This is England: Natalie Casey interview
An hour before she is due on stage, Natalie Casey arrives at West London’s Bush Theatre in a state of profound contrition. The voiceover work she’s been doing all day – for a new show which sounds like a cross between Come Dine With Me and Blind Date – has delayed her and she’s “so, so sorry” she’s late.
Despite the mugginess of the late September evening, her diminutive form is swamped in a huge winter overcoat. After we settle in the garden of the theatre’s cafe, Casey – like the least threatening flasher imaginable – peels back the camel coat’s lapel and points to the label inside: Yves Saint Laurent pour homme.
“£60!” she says, conspiratorially. “Can you believe it? There's this great woman at Greenwich market who’s got a vintage stall. She likes me so she always gives me a good price.
"And I'm going to keep wearing it, even though I'm sweating my tits off," she adds, laughing.
It’s a turn of phrase worthy of Donna, the loveable ladette Casey played for 10 years in the BBC3 sitcom Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. Warm, intelligent and highly articulate, there’s far more to Casey than the punchline-driven character she played for so long – although she does like to pepper her speech with what your granny might call ‘broad language’, usually for comic effect.
We’re here to talk about her new play Albion, an exploration of the far-right in Britain which Casey has been starring in since September 12. It’s the second play from former social worker Chris Thompson, who doubtless drew on some of his own experiences for Casey’s character Christine, herself a disillusioned social worker who becomes involved with the fictional English Protection Army.
Albion, which I’ve been to see a few days before interviewing Casey, is a brave, thought-provoking drama. It also makes for uneasy viewing: by focusing almost exclusively on the lives and motivations of its far-right characters, the play forces theatre-goers to engage with them without the comfort of an onstage liberal foil.
It also feels highly topical. While the EPA and UKIP are by no means equivalents (the English Defence League is a closer fit) the same sense of disenfranchisement among huge swathes of the public and the anger over immigration that have contributed to the popularity of Nigel Farage’s party are Albion’s bread and butter.
The action of the play takes place in The Albion pub in London’s east end, which, as well as playing host to a karaoke five nights a week, is also the centre of operations for the EPA’s leader Paul – a man who thinks his country has changed so much that white, working-class men like him are now a voiceless minority.
Perhaps surprisingly given the play’s subject, Paul’s younger brother and fellow EPA member Jayson is openly gay, and the party’s deputy Kyle is black. But what seems like an unlikely imaginative leap on the part of the playwright is actually based in reality: while watching a far-right protest in London Thompson, to his surprise, saw an LGBT rainbow banner being waved among the St George’s flags. After more research, the playwright found that a number of today’s far-right groups were using a language of diversity to broaden their appeal – even while their underlying messages remained as extremist as ever.
“Oh yeah, they use a lot of devices to bring people in,” Casey says. “They’ll do things like put pictures of puppies on Facebook, and then people will like it, and you don’t realise that you’re liking an ideology that is completely and utterly disgusting.”
The actor then points out that Thompson has mirrored such disingenuous techniques in the play itself – by devoting so much time to the karaoke element.
“That’s one of the reasons why the songs exist in the show. It’s in order to make the audience feel really good – ‘hey, I love this song!’ – and ‘hey, I hate blacks!’ – ‘oh no wait...I didn’t mean that.’”
In fact the play contains so many classic songs – ‘It’s Raining Men’ and Tom Jones’s ‘Delilah’ to name but two – that it could almost be called a musical. Casey is right that they lull the audience into a false sense of security, but it’s debateable whether they should be given so much prominence. In a state-of-the-nation drama, where a number of different ideas already jostle for attention, each plotline could be more meaningfully developed with less singing.
Casey’s story arc, which could also benefit from having more time to breathe, is one of the most painfully topical parts of the play. Her character Christine is at the centre of a scandal involving a vulnerable child who has been groomed by a gang of Asian men. “We were racist Paul – we were racist against those white girls,” her character says after she has turned in despair to the EPA.
When Thompson was writing the play, revelations about the sexual exploitation of 1,400 girls in Rotherham over a 16-year period had not yet been published – although the scenario of grooming gangs and vulnerable children was familiar from cases in Rochdale and Oxford. The Rotherham report came out while the cast of Albion were still in rehearsals – something Casey describes as “a vile coincidence”.
“Chris [Thompson] was very nervous about the fact that people might think that he was cynically using a case that was abhorrent in order to sell tickets for a play. But that just blatantly wasn’t the case – the play was already set,” she says, adding that she thinks the timing of the report definitely contributed to discomfort in the audience.
For many on the left, recent revelations of the organised abuse of white girls by Asian men in Britain have prompted some soul-searching about whether too much cultural sensitivity, or too much of an emphasis on multiculturalism, were partly responsible for allowing the exploitation to continue. Casey, who says she has always embraced “straight down the line Labour values”, includes herself in this soul-searching.
“As somebody who speaks as a liberal, there’s a lot of things that we have to answer for as well as liberals,” she explains. “There is a level of political correctness that needs to exist, but there is a level that is detrimental to everybody in society.”
Casey’s hometown of Rawtenstall (“yes, it really is pronounced Rotten-stall,” she laughs) was Labour in the 1990s but turned Tory in 2010. Casey thinks it will remain Conservative in next year’s election. Politics were talked about around the dinner table at home – a family background she describes as “intellectual working class”.
Her parents also encouraged her with her acting, which she took to from a young age. In fact she holds the impressive accolade of being youngest person ever to have a single in the UK charts: ‘Chick Chick Chicken’ was released, and reached number 72, when she was just three. She is gracious when I ask about the tune which has doubtless haunted her since her youth: “Oh, you gotta ask. You’d be mental not to!”
Casey’s acting breakthrough came in 1996 in the British soap Hollyoaks, in which she played Carol Groves for five years. Her decade-long turn as Donna in Two Pints followed, ending in 2011. Casey says she “properly started doing theatre” about seven years ago. The gruelling 5am starts ahead of a day’s filming were beginning to take their toll, and Casey also saw better opportunities as a woman off screen.
“I think that the thing with TV is that when you're a girl you end up playing, sort of, a lawyer’s wife or that kind of thing. They're very two-dimensional, a lot of the characters. I think with theatre the female parts are more well-rounded.”
A couple of weeks before Casey and I meet, Emma Watson has given a high-profile speech to the UN about the importance of feminism among men. How does Casey see the role of female and male celebrities in the struggle for gender equality?
“I think just human beings in general play an important role. We now live in a massive time of flux and it's fascinating to see the way young women behave now – they really have a conscious idea that there’s this thing called feminism that they should be a part of. What's interesting about the speech that Emma Watson gave is that it's a completely dead-on point that the only way to move the rights of women forward is if men get on board and comprehend it too.”
Would Casey consider speaking out in the same way Watson did, if the occasion arose?
“Definitely. I think I do on a daily basis. I think it's time for women to shun the idea that we are prey. You shouldn't be frightened anymore of being an assertive female – it's a very, very important thing to be – and you should not apologise for the fact that you have a vagina. Actually I'm very lucky that all of the men in my life, and pretty much most of the men that I meet, have the same agenda. The drama business can be very misogynistic but I'm lucky enough not to have seen it, really.”
Casey adds that she is “amazed” that a dialogue about equality is still needed.
“It's a basic human rights issue, isn't it? It's not a man-woman issue, it is a human rights issue.”
While her feminist politics are instinctual, the current crop of political parties leave Casey cold. When the conversation turns to who she is thinking of voting for next May, the actor sounds genuinely glum.
“Do you know what? It’s a terrifying thought to me, given that people threw themselves in front of horses so that I could vote, but I might end up getting in there and doing this on a piece of paper” – she draws a big squiggle on an imaginary ballot paper in the air – “but to be brutally frank, I have absolutely no idea. I do know there are certain parties that I’d never go near in a million years and that I’d rather eat my own shoe than vote for. But I’ve just no idea what my alternative is now.”
Casey says that from where she’s sitting, democracy in Britain has become a choice between “somebody you despise, and somebody you slightly dislike”.
“Is that the best that we can aspire to? It makes me sort of depressed,” she sighs.
Ironically, given her disillusionment, Casey’s Albion character Christine eventually becomes a politician herself, branching off from the EPA and standing for office. Unlike the EPA’s leader Paul, who fails in his attempts to make his group seem respectable, Christine succeeds by disguising her far-right beliefs with a more measured, reasonable-sounding rhetoric. To prepare for her role, Casey watched a lot of footage of politicians giving polished media performances and evading interviewers’ questions – perhaps one of the reasons she feels so frustrated with them.
Soon it’s time for Casey to head into the theatre, then back onstage for another two hours of karaoke and extremism. “C’mon then. Bring it in,” she says, warmly pulling me into a hug with that huge camel overcoat.
For all its power as a piece of theatre, Albion has its flaws. But one thing isn’t in doubt: Casey’s performance steals the show. Her star as an actor is bound to keep rising but if she ever decides to step on to the political stage, she would play the part perfectly.
Albion ran from Friday 12 September – Saturday 25 October 2014