Bitter Phil

Issue section: 

Review of ’The People Next Door‘ by Henry Adams, Theatre Royal, London

When his local mosque was firebombed, Henry Adams responded by writing The People Next Door, a very funny play about the scapegoating of Muslims which has accompanied the post 9/11 ’war on terror‘. It also challenges prejudices around age, race and the unemployed.

The central character, Nigel, is a no-hoper recovering from mental illness and living on a council estate, getting by on disability benefits and spliffs, when Phil, a local policeman, violently enters his life with the news that his estranged brother Karim is a suspected terrorist. He insists that Nigel become an informer and since Nigel looks Asian he decides to threaten, bribe and beat him into agreeing to go undercover at the local mosque. At the same time, because they don‘t trust him the police stir up worries about Nigel among his neighbours, including one elderly woman, Mrs Mac, who is led to suspect that Nigel might be making bombs.

Adams draws our attention to the consequences of the ’war on terror‘ at home. In the words of PC Phil ’this is not the time to have brown skin‘. Even Nigel‘s black friend Marco claims, ’Those Muslims are the new gangsters. Muslims are like the worst shit ever.‘ Nigel himself admits that he shares some of the policeman‘s prejudices, referring to the Muslims as ’the good little boys who go down the mosque every Sunday‘ - ‘they ain‘t cool Muslims Malcolm X‘.

But when he goes to the mosque undercover Nigel finds absolutely nothing dangerous. Some of it bores him and he at one point suspects a ’bug-eyed man‘ of cracking on to him, but in general they show him an interest and respect which leads him to spend more time down there. ’Going to the mosque,‘ he explains, ’was the best thing that ever happened to me ... People talk to you man, not just crap. They talk to you about life and stuff.‘ Nigel ’the loser‘ increasingly becomes more self aware and confident about standing up to PC Phil, refusing to plant a weapon in the mosque. In the process he also comes to a better understanding with his neighbours Marco and the elderly pensioner Mrs Mac, taking them into his home in their moment of need.

The message of the play is that the real threat to our safety comes neither from the local mosque nor your neighbours, but the police (and the authorities they represent) who become increasingly deranged and brutal in pursuance of results in the war on terrorism. As Nigel says astutely to PC Phil, ’It‘s ’cause you and people like you treat people like that that kids decide they want to put off bombs. You don‘t leave them any fucking choice.‘

Finally it is the group of council estate neighbours - Nigel, Marco and Mrs Mac - who overcome superficial differences, and unite against the crooked cop. The slightly surreal but upbeat ending was certainly appreciated by the audience in the show I was at who applauded when PC Phil finally gets his just desserts.
This is a very funny play, but as Henry Adams has said, the most important thing about it is the message against prejudice.