Review: Filthy Business ★★★★ – Sara Kestelman keeps it in the family in Ryan Craig’s new Jewish comedy

Families – can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. Matriarch Yetta Solomon has no intention of allowing a single member of her family to escape from Solomon Rubber. Craig’s title is clever – rubber is self-evidently a filthy business. You can almost smell the huge bales and coils of the stuff looming from every shelf downstairs and off every table upstairs on Ashley Martin-Davis’s towering two-tier shop set. Yetta is not afraid of playing dirty either, from reeling in a reluctant phone customer with the promise of “a special one-time-only deal” (actually almost double the asking price) to micro-managing a Machiavellian insurance scam, with violence thrown in that almost makes this feel like Yiddishe (as against Scandi) noir.

Craig’s drama is rooted in the reality of his own upbringing. It turns out that “lolloping about” in the mattress, bed and foam-rubber shop his Dad painstakingly built up from off-cuts collected working as a tyre fitter, was time well spent. The action spans a quarter century, from 1968 to 1982. There’s a marvellous sense of place and time in Edward Hall’s sprightly production, especially when the 60s are swinging and the grandchildren yearn to be part of the action. Callum Woodhouse’s appealing grandson Mickey aspires to be a trendsetting Teasie Weasie hairdresser and Callie Cook’s sunny-natured granddaughter Bernice has already got a bouncy  bouffant.

Like my own, Craig’s antecedents made it to London from Russia long before the Holocaust. Sara Kestelman’s magnificently malevolent Yetta is self-avowedly moulded by the cruelty of Jew-hating Cossacks and the hardships of escape and life in London. She repeats her well-rehearsed saga in English peppered with Yiddish: the boychiks (sonny-boys) and ganovim (thieves) deployed by my great-grandmother.

So however loudly and violently her warring sons  Nat and Leo (nicely-sustained virulence from Louis Hilyer and Dorian Lough) feud with her and each other and scheme to strike out alone, it’s clear she’ll stop at nothing to keep the family together – in the business and under her thumb. It’s a large family, too, eight of the 13-strong cast gather round the family dinner table.

The warring family of nations toiling at Solomons extends to Nigerian immigrants represented by hard-working machinist Rosa (feisty Babirye Bukilwa). Yetta effortlessly sees off the man who claims the money Rosa owes for the citizenship he’s provided with a sham marriage. The xenophobia suffered by “blackies” and “Yids” alike has telling contemporary resonance.

Her fellow machinist, put-upon young Monty Minsky (Edmund Derrington, terrific) , blinking as he ascends from the basement machine room into the comparative light of the showroom, reminded me of Willie Mossop, the worm who turns in Hobson’s Choice – that early 20th-century classic comedy about a Northern family warring over their shoemaking business. It’s a good omen that Craig’s comedy could become a Jewish classic for our time.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Dominic Clemence

Filthy Business runs until Saturday 22 April. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed only), 3pm (Sat only). £10-£35. Hampstead Theatre, NW3 3EU. 020 7722 9301. www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Click here to read more theatre reviews.