Talk Propa is a show about the prejudicial treatment of Northern women (curious gender-specificity there) by effete Southerners. The enemy hates the eliding accents – their ticks and cadences, and imposes on this mark of cultural identification a series of boorish clichés that are inherently reductive and, signalling the mass media prism through which this discrimination is apparently felt, a block on roles of substance in film, TV, radio, and theatre. The show’s thesis is that if Northerners want to participate in a Southern dominated media, they must agree to reinforce local stereotypes.
The performers, in rallying against this cultural dominance, are themselves being reductive. They say Southern when they mean London – middle class, white; there’s no rallying against Estuary English or third generation Jamaican patois here. You could argue, so let’s be obnoxious Southerners and do it, that this betrays a problem specific to the regions – namely the mistaken belief that the homogeneity that characterises the locale, in thought and speech, is found elsewhere.
Theirs is a very specific villain, whose affront to those who’d self-categorise and structure their consciousness around a provincial identity, is to insist on a kind of broad, auxiliary form of English that can be universally understood, and which forces the listener to think beyond local associations and concentrate on the individual’s character.
As the critic Jonathan Meades once observed, linguistic universality is a great leveller – it brings people together rather than tyrannically insisting they give two fucks about, even celebrate, the dialect and traditions of a self-segregating community. Contrast that with Talk Propa’s instruction to the Southerners in the audience: “shut the fuck up and listen for once.”
You can’t blame these northern women for fighting a rearguard action, with palpable anger, against the clichés, many of which are rooted in misogyny, that have come to define them to the ears of those within the M25. No one wants to be told they’re loud, tasteless, parochial, self-absorbed and obsessed with region-specific ephemera, even if it’s true. And no one wants to be written off as stupid because they stubbornly refuse to jettison a dialect that suggests a certain insularity, or inability to adapt to wider communities. It’s a show that simultaneously makes you embarrassed for thinking these things while pleading for the right to impose local preoccupations on hitherto unenamoured gatekeepers.
Ultimately, the show’s cocktail of mischief and indignation make it a memorable night out. But I wondered if the show had the wrong target. Isn’t the creative centre of gravity in the country, thanks to the economics of the last 40 years, the problem? And if you could rebalance that – if people and ideas flowed through the North the way they do the South; culture being the Southern brew of choice; then wouldn’t the regional specificity being defended here become redundant? Discuss – but not with me, I’m off for a piss.