American theatre

Review: The Melting Pot ★★★★ - Israel Zangwill’s clear-eyed 1908 vision proves urgently topical

Israel Zangwill, a ferociously intelligent, passionate champion of multiculturalism, escaped poverty in London’s East End thanks in part to his education at the Jews' Free School, where he also subsequently taught for a time. He went on to become a writer, political thinker and activist. He was the first to use the phrase ‘the melting pot’ to describe what he also calls ‘God's crucible’ – America – in this play, endorsed enthusiastically and vocally by then US president Theodore Roosevelt at its 1908 premiere in New York. Now Bitter Pill Theatre produces the first UK revival of The Melting Pot since 1938.

David Quixano, the visionary but damaged Jewish composer at the play’s heart, has survived the massacre of his family in the pogroms rife in the Ukraine, to rebuild his life in New York, taking refuge with his Uncle Mendel. Here too he must fight the prejudice and antisemitism displayed by almost everyone, from his uncle’s Irish housekeeper to the brash young millionaire playboy who is his rival in love for philanthropic socialite Vera Revendal. As the estranged daughter of a Jew-hating Ukrainian Baron, she is initially suspicious of Jews herself (‘That wonderful boy a Jew!?’ she exclaims when she finds out).

Vera calls him wonderful because he has played at a fundraising concert for her settlement project to help New York’s poorest. He’s in the throes of writing a symphony – a paean to the melting pot of America, where the prejudices of the past will disappear as the immigrant races mix to create a utopian multicultural future.

How David fights for his principles, his music and his future happiness is the meat of Zangwill’s drama, in director Max Elton’s sprightly, timely revival. It is of course the current rise of antisemitism and the mass movement of refugees from violence and poverty, coupled with prejudice against ‘the other’, that sadly make it so timely.

Steffan Cennydd is a shining-eyed, boyish David Quixano, delivering idealism bound to win Vera’s tender heart, but also convincingly haunted by terrifying flashbacks to the violence he endured. He’s well matched by Whoopie van Raam’s elegant, equally passionate Vera, an appealing young ‘Lady Bountiful’ with a strong sense of justice. Alexander Gatehouse relishes making Quincy Davenport the man you love to hate, a narcissistic, spoilt, insensitive, cheating and unashamedly racist millionaire used to getting his own way, he makes Zangwill seem topically prophetic. He patronises eminent musician Herr Pappelmeister (delightfully authentic Hayward B Morse), calling him ‘Poppy’, and enjoys matching vicious Baron Revendal’s hatred of ‘the Jew vermin’.

Peter Marinker gives intriguing contrasting portraits of Revendal and David’s fiercely Jewish Uncle Mendel – and narrates as Zangwill too. Ann Queensberry valiantly mumbles entirely in Yiddish as Mendel’s mother and Katrina McKeever enjoys housekeeper Kathleen’s journey from despising such Jewish eccentricities as keeping Shabbat, to enthusiastic apologist for her employers’ traditions. Composer Piers Sherwood Roberts knits the action together with tantalising ‘snatches’ from David’s ‘American Symphony’ in this inspiring symphony to multiculturalism.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Chris Tribble

The Melting Pot runs Until Tuesday 19 December. 7.30pm (Sun-Tue), 2pm (Tue only). £18, £16 concs. Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 0844 847 1652.

Click here to hear our interview with Peter Marinker on JR OutLoud.

Review: Oslo ★★★★ – Travelling hopefully towards Middle East peace proves an exhilarating journey

You almost certainly know the venture ends in failure and tragedy but what a gloriously exhilarating and entertaining evening JT Rogers makes of the journey. It's 1991 and the US-sponsored Middle East Peace Conference is going nowhere, with the excluded PLO still ensconced in Tunis. Norwegian power couple Mona Juul, a diplomat posted to Cairo, and Terje Rod-Larsen, her foundation-running sociologist husband, get a chance to see first hand the conflict in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Witnessing a confrontation between a Palestinian stone-throwing youth and a similarly-aged Israeli soldier, they are struck by their similarities. They resolve to try and bring the two sides together in a fluid, non-confrontational way, luring them to a Norwegian country mansion where personal conversations over whisky and waffles work better than the institutional grandstanding of the official peace talks.

Director Bartlett Sher whisks his cast, as crisp as a Norwegian winter, through the back-channeling and clandestine meetings and the associated politics of the peace process that eventually lead to the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Sensibly, Rogers focuses on the negotiators and not the hand-shakers and the actors seamlessly break the fourth wall to move the action through time.

Peter Polycarpou invests pugnacious but charming PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie with both warmth and anger, a portrait of a complex and conflicted man, eager for peace but scarred by conflict. His opposite number is Phillip Arditti's cocksure, arrogant and domineering Uri Savir, a typical prickly Sabra (native Israeli), who finds an unlikely friend in Qurie.

Lydia Leonard’s determined, grounded Mona stage-manages the action with Scandinavian cool and style. Monochrome-clad, carrying a drinks tray, at curtain-up you might take her for waitress, till she confides in the audience. Toby Stephens’ flamboyant, self-centred Terje is plausibly likeable and infuriating – and on (peace) message.

The Norwegian contingent includes Foreign Minister Holst (Howard Ward), Mona’s boss and his wife Marianne Heiberg (Geraldine Alexander) who works for Terje. "Well, Norway is a very small country!” as Juul puts it in one of her deliciously dry asides. Ward and Alexander double as Finn and Toril, the domestic staff sworn to secrecy.

The negotiations play out on Michael Yeargan’s set, a curved wall that doubles as a canvas for 59 Productions' effective projections with Scandinavian-sharp lighting from Donald Holder.

As the action rolls through the various crunch points on the way to that handshake, your hopes are equally elated and deflated at the prospect – or not – of peace. The play ends with a brief round-up of the subsequent history, but Terje’s final appeal to the audience to see his beautiful vision leaves you, heartbroken, with the dream of what could have been.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Oslo runs Monday 2 October – Saturday 30 December. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2pm (Thu & Sat only). £18-£85. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 0844 871 7627.

Click here to read our interview with writer JT Rogers and director Bartlett Sher from the July 2017 issue of Jewish Renaissance.

Review: Working ★★★★ – America’s workers find their voice in a musical that really works

“All gone to look for America” sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1968. In 1974 oral historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel found America by conducting a series of free-form interviews with so-called ‘ordinary’ people – from labourers to teachers – about their working lives. Uninterrupted by their interviewer, they spoke freely about the meaning they found in their work – and its part in the meaning of their lives. The resulting book is a bestseller still.

In 1975, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) – collaborating with Nina Faso and other composers, including Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard – began work on a verbatim musical (A Chorus Line opened that year) that gave a new voice to these inhabitants of the world of work. Working has continued to develop, taking in hi-tech, low-input changes in the working world. The latest version, with new songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda and contributions from writer/director Gordon Greenberg, gets its European premiere in this glowing, compassionate production.

Director Luke Sheppard’s brilliant idea is to recruit, alongside his six seasoned workers (three men, three women), four hugely promising newbies out of drama school (Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Houle and Luke Latchman) to sit at their feet, listening and learning from the stories of the different employees they play – when they’re not joining in chorus numbers and high-energy routines, as choreographed by Fabian Aloise. So designer Jean Chan’s grungy workplace set teems with figures she dresses in 50 shades of iconic denim.

There is so much light and shade in this beautifully calibrated show. The upbeat numbers are balanced by more contemplative vignettes. The six leads cover a useful age range. The most senior, Peter Polycarpou, brings his gravitas to Schwartz’s poignant Fathers and Sons, taking us into the emotional hinterland of this working man, his relationship with his son mirroring his own with his father. Schwartz drew on his own experience and it shows.

Equally telling is Miranda’s A Very Good Day: two immigrant workers, a carer and a nanny, sing in tender counterpoint about their charges, one at each end of life, perfectly conjured by Liam Tamne and Siubhan Harrison. Gillian Bevan charts stoical Rose Hoffman’s 40 years of teaching explaining Nobody Tells Me How (Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead): “When my parents came over I didn’t learn Jewish as a first language.” Dean Chisnall touches as gun-using policeman turned life-saving fireman and Krysten Cummings complete this perfect line up. A stunning finale, Carnelia’s Something to Point To, should give everyone pause to look up at a building or around their own workplace and give respect to the workforce who built it. These are the men and women whom Trump claims to represent. Working works perfectly to give them a proud and genuine voice.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Robert Workman

Working runs until Saturday 8 July. 7.30pm (Mon-Fri), 3pm (Sat only). £25, £20 concs. Southwark Playhouse, SE1 6BD.

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Review: Veteran’s Day ★★★★ - Donald Freed’s 1987 cautionary tale is timely and provocative in the month of Trump’s inauguration

The theatre is a storage room in an LA veterans administration hospital. The date is 11 November 1989 – Remembrance Day. Three veterans of three different conflicts, emblematic of a 20th-century world torn apart by war, represent the soldiers scarred by their experiences in the theatre of war. Sporting poppies, they prepare in this makeshift waiting room to be decorated for valour. Private Leslie R Holloway, who saw service (and unnamed horrors) during World War I, is slumped in a wheelchair when Sergeant John MacCormick Butts breezes into the room in his brash suit. His voice is even louder as he whiles away the time by cheerily proving that his prowess at the piano is equal to his prowess in World War II, accompanying himself reprising rousing ditties from different conflicts, from Keep the Home Fires Burning to Over Here. His best endeavours are not enough to rouse Holloway, however, so it’s a relief when the immaculate, dapper figure of Colonel Walter Kercelik marches smartly into the room, so highly decorated during the Viet Nam War that he’s appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

What follows is an unravelling that is as unpredictable as it is terrifying, until it becomes apparent what deep psychological traumas all three men have endured. The sort of damage evident in Holloway’s slouched form is disguised by Butts, with his over-cheerful bonhomie, and Kercelik with his extraordinary outward self-control, encyclopaedic retention of facts and glowing efficiency.

Freed’s play is an eloquent exposé of the failure of doctors and the forces’ authorities to recognise and treat the psychological damage of war, from shell shock to post-traumatic stress damage. His writing is vividly authentic and, set as an unnamed newly successful presidential candidate is about to take advantage of a PR opportunity to meet these heroes, his chillingly clever story assumes a telling topicality this month.

Hannah Boland Moore directs her perfectly-cast production with finely-calibrated sensitivity on a set cleverly converted by designer Liam Bunster from that of the Finborough’s current main stage production with the simple addition of a huge stained cloth. It acts as backdrop to revelations by Charlie De Broomhead’s superbly and terrifyingly authoritative and precise Kercelik, which reduces Craig Pinder’s expansive and wonderfully irritating Butts to a jelly, while Roger Braban fulfils the difficult role of the apparently inert Holloway to touching and disturbing perfection.

Sound designer Matt Downing’s noises include Sousa marches played by a military band to counterpoint Butts’ more informal ditties, as well as a patchwork of confused tannoy announcements and more alarming sounds as the story reaches its extreme, but plausible climax. It’s just a shame it gets only three outings a week. It deserves a main-house run.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Veterans Day runs until Tuesday 24 January, 7.30pm (Sun, Mon only) & 2pm (Tue only), £18, £16 concs, at Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 0844 847 1652.

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Review: Luv ★★★★ - Lots to love in this surreal 60s love-in

theatre_luv_nick-barber-milt-harry-charles-dorfman-in-buckland-theatre-companys-luv-at-park-theatre-credit-the-other-richard Reviving Murray Schisgal’s 1964 show, unashamedly a mix of absurdist humour and traditional Broadway comedy, is a gamble, especially given our current perspectives on matters of love, sex and the human condition. In lesser hands the gamble might not have paid off, but director Gary Condes has a fine understanding of the material and nudges his cast to find just that right blend between reality and cartoon that made the play a hit over 50 years ago.

The plot is straightforward and the end predictable, but the fun lies in the way we get there. Mercenary Milt encounters his old college friend, boho loser Harry, as Harry is about to jump off a bridge. As they talk, we learn that both men are equally unhappy, thanks to a wonderfully daft vaudevillian exchange as to who has had the harder life (reminiscent of Monty Python’s four Yorkshire men living in a shoe box). Milt wants to marry his mistress and he hits on the idea of offloading his current wife, Ellen, onto Harry, who has never experienced love.


Charles Dorfman’s lugubrious Harry catches the pathos of the character, but never lets the comedy get away. His foil, Nick Barber, equally balances the brightness of conniving Milt with real sadness. Elsie Bennett finds both steel and warmth in Ellen and the trio play up the pastiche combinations of realism, humour and farce that you also find in plays by fellow New York Jewish playwright Neil Simon, to great comic effect.

Designer Max Dorey evocatively creates the suicide bridge against a changing sky with lighting by Christopher Nairne subtly underlining the changing pace the text demands. It fits like a glove in the Park Theatre's intimate studio space.

(Baseball) caps off to the cast for maintaining the verisimilitude of period New York accents throughout and to Dorey for his Swingin' Sixties costumes. Buckland Theatre Company and Gary Condes deliver a satisfying send up of both 60s experimental theatre and Broadway in this delightful, witty revival.

By Judi Herman

Photos by The Other Richard

Luv runs until Saturday 7 January. 7.45pm (Tue-Sat), 3.15pm (Thursday & Saturday). £14.50-£18. Park Theatre, N4 3JP. 020 7870 6876.

Read our interview with actor Charles Dorfman