Old tensions simmer in Kilburn’s newly refurbished theatre as parents slug it out for school places in this no-holds-barred comedy
Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, now Kiln Theatre, has been lovingly refurbished to incorporate beautiful original tiles, stone and woodwork uncovered during the works, sensitively harmonising with new artwork and décor. A more spacious auditorium with comfortable seats replacing benches, improved disabled access and many more ladies’ loos add to Kiln’s welcoming vibe. Its stated aim to remain a community theatre, as well as attracting new audiences, has not yet convinced those who deplore the name change, judging by the protestors outside on opening night. So is all sweetness and light at least on stage, between the two aspiring urbanite couples in Alexis Zegerman’s comic cautionary tale? That remains to be seen.
Simone and Sam and Juliet and Nick are long-term best friends. Their four-year-old daughters are bosom buddies too, cementing their parents’ relationship. But the contentious issue of how to get their daughters into the high-achieving local Church of England primary school dominates their conversation. Secular Jews Simone and Sam are prepared to notch up the necessary attendance at weekly church services to get Milly in. Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s loud and bouncy Simone even joins the church choir, relishing the chance to belt out the hymns she learnt at school, providing great comic moments between scenes. The couple are hardly shulgoers, apparently aware only of Orthodox synagogue services, which Daniel Lapaine’s forty-something man-cub Sam describes as ‘three hours of men dovening (praying) in a dead language’ while Simone complains ‘the women can’t even sit with the men, because we’re unclean’. They could have considered joining a Progressive congregation, although that wouldn’t get Milly into St Mary’s either.
Juliet and Nick are the real deal – practising Christians, regular churchgoers with the ear of Father Thomas. But they too need to clock up their 40 weeks of church attendance to have a chance of getting Sophie into St Mary’s. Still Nick, a teacher himself (he’d be my favourite teacher in Daon Bruni’s sympathetic performance), offers to show his friends the ropes, introduce them to the Padre. Although she’s been close friends with Simone from Uni and has a soft spot for her expansive Jewish mother, Claire Goose’s uptight Juliet understandably has increasing reservations about Simone’s ‘crusade’. There’s also an undertow of tension between Zegerman’s ‘perfect’ couple centring on Juliet’s efforts to get pregnant again and her worries for the sensibilities of her mixed-race daughter.
Despite Zegerman’s larky, ready wit, throughout the often jokey first act she ensures that issues of race and religion lurk close to the surface. Simone is convinced a primary schoolboy has called out ‘You Jew’. The tensions of waiting to hear about school entry make for paranoia centring on Jewish perceptions and perceptions of Jews. The two little girls (a convincing unseen offstage presence), who had fun ganging up on their parents to demand their Disney fix, descend into exchanging half-understood racial slurs they must have overheard from their elders, but clearly not betters.
The second half starts decorously enough at the shiva (mourning period at home) for Simone’s recently deceased mother, but thanks to the school issue, things turn darker as Nick and Juliet pay their respects. The rivalries finally escalate out of control, outside forces are called in, parent is pitted against parent and wife against husband. Zegerman gives Nick an extraordinarily powerful and thought-provoking speech, in which he pours out his constant need to recalibrate – “checking myself, to make you people feel comfortable” – as a black man in a predominantly white society. There are no winners and no answers, only questions. The play feels extraordinarily timely in Artistic Director Indhu Rubasingham’s fine production. A fitting opening for Kiln Theatre.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Mark Douet
Holy Sh!t runs until Saturday 6 October. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat from 15 Sep). £10-£32.50. Kiln Theatre, NW6 7JR. 020 7328 1000. https://kilntheatre.com