A searing, funny musical of love born in pain, uncertainty and hope that has universal resonance today
In the early 20th century, Canada took in thousands of Jews fleeing pogroms in Europe, just as in this century its government continues to welcome refugees from brutal persecutions worldwide. This powerful, beautiful show, the story of the founders of one little Jewish dynasty in Canada, acts by way of a thank you from its creators. Indeed, co-writer Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on her great-grandparents’ experience, would not have been born if they had not met and married soon after their arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1908.
From the get-go, the storytelling grabs its audience by the throat. A huge shipping container filling the venerable stage of Wilton’s Music Hall splits open to reveal the five-strong line-up in a setting as versatile as these performers. Composer Ben Caplan, in the role of narrator and guide – the Wanderer – leaps out to his vantage point downstage. He comments on the action and gleefully interacts with the audience in thrilling song and monologue that's haunting, challenging and often earthy. With his authentic beard, he dons a prayer shawl as appropriate, to cut an authoritative rabbinical figure, heart-stopping in his rendition of 'El Malei Rachamim' ('Merciful God', sung for the soul of the departed).
Dark events besiege the two young Romanian refugees meeting in the queue at Halifax’s Pier 21, the Canadian equivalent of the USA’s Ellis Island, to discover they share names meaning life in Hebrew: Chaim and Chaya. Their affecting courtship dance crackles with flashes of dark humour. Mary Fay Coady’s magnificent Chaya, conveys the apparently detached sense of humour of the ‘older woman’ who has lived at just 23, with the raise of an eyebrow and twist of her mouth, dissing the loveably clumsy wooing of Eric Da Costa’s wide-eyed 18-year-old Chaim.
Yet Coady makes clear that Chaya is concealing devastating emotional scarring from her terrible ordeal in the old country, where she buried her beloved first husband, on the harsh journey from persecution to this uncertain new life. For her there is special pain in what she has left behind. For Chaim there was nothing to stay for. He describes in shocking, graphic detail the massacre of his entire family.
How this pair rebuild their lives together, through growing love and understanding, supporting each other through the daily graft of hard work, to found the dynasty they movingly trace to the present day, is the gripping story they tell in 85 thrilling minutes, under co-creator Christian Barry’s tight direction.
The whole company share Caplan’s eclectic score, ranging from klezmer to rap: Coady on violin, Da Costa playing woodwind, plus two extraordinarily versatile musicians, Jeff Kingsbury on drums and Kelsey McNulty on keyboards and accordion. This makes for a rich musical tapestry threading together a narrative at once heartbreaking and life-affirming, with a resonance for now so much wider than its specific origins in the accounts of Jewish immigration. It has toured the world and on this, its fourth visit to the UK, the audience came out buzzing in the afterglow of this must-see show.
By Judi Herman
Header photo by Graeme Braidwood
Old Stock* runs until Saturday 28 September. 7.45pm, 3pm (Thu & Sat only). From £12.50. Wilton’s Music Hall, E1 8JB. 020 7702 2789. www.wiltons.org.uk
*The 3pm show on 26 Sep will be followed by a panel discussion, featuring the cast and guests Ben Margolis (City of Sanctuary) and Rebecca Hayes Laughton from PsycheDelight and Women For Refugee Women.