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Guest blog: The Joke on tour, week 4

The Joke is now at CPT and runs until Sat 4 June. Find out more

It’s the last week of The Joke’s nationwide tour, before we descend on the capital. We’re in a taxi from Berwick upon Tweed station to our hotel, and our driver has one of the freakiest accents I’ve ever heard. I’ve been looking forward to Berwick – it’s the closest to Scotland we get on the tour, so this is effectively my character’s home gig. And I’m fascinated by the town’s liminal status as not-quite-English and not-quite-Scottish either: where do its allegiances lie? But still, this accent – Geordie and Scottish all mixed up in a discombobulating vocal broth – way outstrips expectations. “Where are you from?”, I ask the driver, eager to know if this really is how Berwickers speak. “I,” he replies, “come from Kent.”

joke trailer 3Maybe that’s an appropriate conclusion to reach at the end of our tour. All identity bets are off; “Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales,” as we used to say at primary school about half a century ago, “all tied up like monkeys’ tails.” “What /is/ nationality anyway?”, as Will’s character asks in the show:  “we’re all just Starbucks people now, aren’t we?”. That may feel like the case among more enlightened, or more innocent, people than me. Which is why I felt guilty prepping my nephew (aged 13) and niece (10) before they came to see the Berwick performance, by explaining firstly the concept of the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman joke, and secondly, the fact that the Northern Irish used to be, er, associated with violence. I’m just trying to help them understand the jokes in the show, but it feels like I’m passing down ancient prejudice from one generation to the next.

But it’s not just me reminding new generations that Britishness is a complicated business. Any visitor to Berwick upon Tweed (particularly a sentimental ex-pat Scot like myself) can’t miss its many monuments to the vexed nature of our national arrangement. This is a town, bear in mind, that changed hands between Scotland and England thirteen times between the late 1200s and the end of the fifteenth century. Usually violently, as various displays around the now-ruined castle luridly remind you.

Frankly, I struggle to accept that the town’s not Scottish now. Look at the border, which kinks northwards ridiculously in order to claim Berwick for the English side. Everything about the town (its mainly Geordie accents notwithstanding) seems Scottish to me, right down to the ample Scottish section in the second-hand bookshop. But then I notice the front pages of local newspapers, which are full of doom and gloom about Newcastle United’s relegation from the Premiership. And I’m forced to accept that history’s music stopped at the wrong time, as far as we Scots are concerned – and Berwick’s not going to get passed back into our hands again anytime soon.

None of which matters, I dare say – but it certainly makes for a dynamic setting for a performance of The Joke, which elicits gasps from the audience where we’ve never heard gasps before. When the Englishman claims that “Scottish people always look like they’re about to cry,” and the Scotsman barks back that that’s because they’re obliged to live next door to the English, there’s an audible intake of breath from the local crowd. Presumably cross-border tensions are seldom so nakedly expressed here – or at least, seldom in the last three hundred years.

All of which leads Will to thinking that maybe The Joke‘s natural habitat is the border town or contested territory, neither wholly one nationality or the other. We spend the train journey home plotting an improbable new tour for our show: Hereford, Alsace-Lorraine, Crimea, Jerusalem.

But first: London’s calling.

The Joke is now at CPT and runs until Sat 4 June. Find out more