Review: 5 Kilo Sugar – Gur Koren’s tale is bittersweet magic realism

5 kilo sugar

So your late grandfather assumes the role of a fairly benign dybbuk (malevolent spirit) and enters the bodies of a variety of unsuspecting hosts, mostly Israeli (as we are mostly in Tel Aviv), to gee you up to right what he perceives as a historical wrong perpetrated during the 1940s in post-war Eastern Europe. It’s not quite on the same scale of the vengeance that, say, Hamlet’s father demands. All Grandfather’s co-survivor and landsman (person from the same village) has done is slope off when the pair are apprehended for trying to sell smuggled sugar on the black market, leaving Grandfather to face the music and two months in a Russian labour camp. But Grandfather is rankled in death, as in life, and now he’s spotted a chance to set the record straight, for the cowardly landsman’s historian of a grandson, Yoad Riva, is writing a book about his grandfather.

This is the clever, quirky premise of Gur Koren’s moving, funny chamber piece, which opens a window onto the past, to remind us that it is always with us, particularly in the case of second and third generation Holocaust survivors, and especially for Israelis.

This is a lovely intimate piece of writing, with a hero who engages one-to-one with his audience (it’s a mockumentary, so we’re cast as a TV or film audience) that gets the production it deserves by director Ariella Eshed.

The cast of four work wonderfully together and tackle the different roles that most of them get to play with relish. Tom Slatter’s Gur Koren is indeed engaging and sympathetic and gets a lot of fun out of the surreal situation of talking to people who are being ‘occupied’ by grandfather’s ghost – and explaining to them that when he addresses what is apparently the air (shades of Hamlet again) he is actually doing a monologue to camera. Spencer Cowan’s Yoad Riva is both funny and appealing, trying to trade sexual favours for that mention in the book, and Shia Forester and Micah Banai have the intriguing job of playing everything from ‘bored prostitute’ to ‘well-read taxi driver’ and ‘Dostoyevsky aficionado’, most of them morphing into bodies possessed by grandfather so he can engage with grandson Gur (so playing a personality within a personality – most of them expansive).

This tale has a real feel of the magic realism of Isaac Singer.  When I saw the show, it was taken to the collective heart of its hugely enthusiastic and eclectic audience, who guffawed and cheered appreciatively in this tiny (hot and sweaty) fringe theatre. Eshed’s Tik-Sho-Ret Theatre (the name means communication in Hebrew) aims to give a platform to Israeli and Jewish theatre in the UK and encourage collaborations through cultural and artistic exchange and to promote communication and co-existence. Perhaps this is the production that will achieve all that in its forthcoming run in Edinburgh, after the debacle of last year’s beleaguered shows from Israel. Unsurprisingly the Israeli version has been running since 2009.

By Judi Herman

Hear Ariella Eshed and cast members talking to Judi post-performance at London’s Etcetera Theatre:

5 Kilo Sugar runs Friday 7 – Saturday 15 August. 10.25pm. £7-£9. theSpace on the Mile, Edinburgh EH1 1TH. http://tik-sho-ret.co.uk