Review: Checkpoint Chana ★★★ – A lively, telling exploration of the current debate around perceptions of antisemitism

In his timely play,  Jeff Page asks when pro-Palestinian criticism of Israel crosses the line to become antisemitism. Celebrated poet Bev seems to have crossed that line, judging from the Twitter storm aroused by Checkpoint Chana, a poem in her latest collection. Chana is the name Bev gives the young woman border-guard at a Hebron checkpoint, whom she observes searching a Palestinian woman’s bag, comparing her to a Nazi searching her grandmother: “The woman presents / she searches her bag / like a Nazi did to her bubbe”.

For me, the jury is out on this one. Bev reads the poem in full at a trendy north London arts centre, despite the urgent advice of Tamsin, her media and tech savvy PA (a luminously passionate Ulrika Krishnamurti). She’s proved right, judging by the disapproving punters voting with their feet, so we the audience get the chance to join the debate. Although I’m rather impressed by the poem, since theatregoers are now used to the necessity for bag searches at every venue, the premise seems weak.

But I’m jumping the gun here. The reading is the climax, near the end of Bev’s bumpy journey through the mire of hate mail, users of scary capitals and the unwelcome support of the poisonous “real-life Jew-baiters”, as Tamsin puts it. Page ups the ante by saddling chain-smoking Bev with a drink problem and making sure we realise what a mess she is in all departments. She is apparently not above casual sex either, whatever the consequences.

Charismatic and assured performer Geraldine Somerville manages, however, to make Bev surprisingly sympathetic. She is helped by Manuel Bau’s sprightly direction and designer Daisy Blower’s warm saffron in-the-round set – doubling as Bev’s cheerfully chaotic study and that trendy venue. It invites the audience into Bev’s space and then casts us as punters at Bev’s gig.

Although Matt Mella is charming, sympathetic and entirely believable as David, the Jewish journalist Tamsin lines up for an exonerating interview with Bev, when he turns out to be Tamsin’s boyfriend, I can’t help feeling the plotting is again a tad schematic, a piece with giving Bev her problems. Nonetheless, his revelation – after that reading – of the antisemitism he himself suffered as a boy is movingly delivered,

Appealing Nathaniel Wade’s Michael, the venue’s cheerful young stage manager, completes the cast, but again there’s a hint of the schematic. When Michael’s mum turns out to be a fan of Bev’s who can’t make the gig and  Bev obligingly poses for a selfie with Michael, he hints that she too is disappointed to find her idol has feet of clay.

Regardless, this is never less than an entertaining and thought-provoking evening that makes a useful contribution to the debate.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Samuel Kirkman

Checkpoint Chana runs until Tuesday 20 March 7.30pm (Sun-Tue only), 2pm (Tue only). £18, £16 concs. Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk