A troubling and moving exploration of the toxic effects of antisemitism on the individual
Since playwright Stephen Laughton embarked on writing his response to the rise of antisemitism, attacks both physical and virtual have increased. It continues to be hot news and Laughton himself has been the subject of invective online and posters for the play have been defaced and torn down. Depressing and alarming, it makes his play all the more urgent.
Laughton’s Jewish boy is Jesse: attractive, funny and charming, but sensitive to a fault and with built-in antisemitic radar, as a child of a Holocaust survivor family. How that leads to the tragic disintegration over years of his relationship with Alex, who becomes his wife and mother of his daughter, is the journey of the play. Although Jesse displays increasing paranoia about antisemitism, Laughton weighs the argument in his favour, for that central relationship is overshadowed almost from the start by a horrific antisemitic attack that lands Jesse in hospital.
Audiences cannot even hope that his relationship with Alex, who helps Jesse through the attack, having first met him on a trippy Club 18-30 trip to Ibiza a few years earlier, will be his salvation. Laughton’s play time travels from 2017, when Alex serves divorce papers on Jesse and prepares to leave with their daughter Poppy. Designer Georgia de Grey provides them with their very own Tardis, for their encounters take place inside, and sometimes just outside, a box with walls of semi-transparent gauze, on which the year is flashed up in neon.
So Robert Neumark Jones’s nervy charismatic Jesse and Asha Reid’s strong spiky Alex (both beautifully calibrated performances) are doomed from the start and although that quirky drug-fuelled first meeting in Ibiza in 2004 is welcome light relief towards the end of the play, it is overshadowed by the foreknowledge of the couple’s future fate. There is plenty more deliciously knowing humour in Laughton’s script, which certainly delighted his mostly youngish audience and Newmark Jones and Reid deliver it with pitch-perfect panache and timing, taking in their stride his subtle overlapping of their exchanges.
Jesse’s disintegration is all the more heart-breaking because he is clearly so proud of his Jewish heritage. He relishes sharing the blessing over the Chanukah candles with Alex in New York back in 2012 and first proposes to her over the lit Chanukiah (candlestick). Still even the wording of his proposal, “I need you to marry me”, is troubling. It is the climax of a conversation where sharing stories of reciprocal violence between Israelis and Palestinians and Alex’s own New York moment of racial discrimination (she is of mixed-race heritage) keep the mood as edgy as it is romantic. Even Alex’s pregnancy becomes a potential flashpoint over the divisive question of circumcision, when she confesses she’s relieved she is expecting a girl because of her reluctance to put her child through what she sees as an ordeal, while for him it is a vital rite of passage.
All this is accompanied by spot-on and subtle reportage about the toxic conflation of Judaism with Zionism and the headlines on antisemitism (Jeremy Corbyn gets his mention), to contextualise Jesse’s complaint that Jews fail to get the sympathy vote: “Jews do not fit traditional definitions of marginalisation” because “antisemitism places Jews as powerful, dominating and privileged.”
Sarah Meadows’ sensitive, imaginative direction serves Laughton’s vision well and composer Benedict Taylor’s soundscape intensifies the unsettling mood. Hannah Lawrence provides back walls decorated with authentic colourful graffiti, which I would have liked to see as a backdrop in their own right, especially during a visit to Paris in 2016. Laughton’s brave, timely dissection of the rise of antisemitism is a must see.
By Judi Herman
Photos by AF Photography
One Jewish Boy* runs until Saturday 5 January. 7.30pm, 3pm (phone for matinee dates). £18.50, £15.50 concs. Old Red Lion, EC1V 4NJ. 033 3012 4963. www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk
*Play contains strong language
Listen to our interview with actor Robert Neumark Jones, who plays Jesse, on JR OutLoud .