Jack Rosenthal

Review: The Knowledge ★★★★ – A funny heart-warming ride through pre-Uber London

Chief examiner Mr Burgess, played with thrilling comic cruelty by Steven Pacey, sets his latest cohort of four would-be London Taxi drivers the task of committing to memory all 320 routes, 15,842 streets and all places of interest on the way within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. “No taxi driver in no other city in no other country in the world has to know a fraction of what you have to know. And not many brain surgeons neither.” The late Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 play for TV exploring the impact of this almost impossible challenge (70% drop-out rate then and some 25,000 streets now) is adapted for the stage by Simon Block and directed with comic verve by Rosenthal’s wife for 30 years Maureen Lipman, who appeared in the TV drama.

It’s a challenge that takes over every aspect of the aspiring cabbies’ lives as well as those of wives and girlfriends. The sacrifices provide the dramatic tension and much of the comedy. Simon Block channels Jack Rosenthal’s ability to imbue what might otherwise be comic stereotypes with genuine warmth and humour by homing in on the self-knowledge his characters acquire along the way. Wisely he does not attempt to deal with the television version’s affectionate paean to the streets of London or to update it. The parallels with today’s struggles for the man on the street are evident.

Ex-Eastender James Alexandrou invests Jack-the-Lad Gordon with a swagger and cockiness that doesn’t get entirely beaten out of him, even by his long-suffering wife Brenda (Celine Abrahams, abrasively assertive). Ben Caplan’s funny, heartbreaking Ted, with his photographic memory and desire to keep up the family tradition of go-to droshky drivers, is the sure cert to get his Green Badge, encouraged by his loving, supportive wife Val, whom excellent Jenna Augen invests with touching eagerness. The ‘one most likely to fail but you know he won’t’ is Fabian Frankel’s engaging nebbich teenage Chris, who physically and metaphorically undergoes the greatest personal transformations, egged on by girlfriend Janet. Alice Felgate invests her with a wonderfully sympathetic no-nonsense briskness that warms the stage.

Louise Callaghan brings a defiant laddishness to chain-smoking Miss Stavely, the sole female candidate. She feels a tad underwritten, perhaps because as a proudly independent young woman in a man’s world, she has no partner, supportive or otherwise.

Mr Burgess’s torture chamber/office dominates Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s split-level stage as his efforts to force his examinees off the road by questioning them with inhalers stuck up his nostrils or doing press-ups dominate the action. “Compared to people, The Knowledge is a piece of marzipan. They mumble. They can’t hear you. They don’t know where they want to go. They get up both your nostrils”.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

The Knowledge runs until Saturday 11 November 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed only), 3pm (Sat only). £17.50-£42.50. Charing Cross Theatre, WC2N 6NL. 084 4493 0650. http://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Review: Bar Mitzvah Boy ★★★★ – The musical version of Jack Rosenthal’s coming of age story gets the intimate production it deserves

Bar Mitzvah Boy, Adam Bregman © Kim Sheard Photography Jack Rosenthal’s television play, originally transmitted in the BBC’s Play for Today in 1976, passed into folk legend, at least in the Jewish community. It told the simple but shocking story of young Eliot Green and his apprehensions over his forthcoming Bar Mitzvah and his worry that all the grown men in his life are somewhat immature and imperfect. In the meantime, the family goes through all the stock neuroses of putting on the then almost obligatory celebratory dinner dance.

At the time, it was wonderful to see even such caricatures on mainstream television and Rosenthal’s concept, that the play was about universal themes of adolescence and family rather than insular concerns, was helped by his genial writing and affectionate performances and direction.

So when Don Black offered to put together a Jewish team, including Jule Styne, to stage Bar Mitzvah Boy as a musical, surely it had to be a smash hit? Yet it only ran for 77 performances in London and was equally a failure when reset in 1946 Brooklyn in a New York tryout.

Critics at the time blamed the failure on an awkward mix of American tunes and British words and a focus on the parents’ battles over the Bar Mitzvah party rather than Eliot’s qualms about the whole point of the day. Indeed, Rosenthal himself went on to write 'Smash', a stage play about his own anguish at seeing his television play mangled into a musical West End failure.

So why would a revival of Barmitzvah Boy – the Musical, succeed this time round? Well, the new book by David Thompson (The Scottsboro Boys, and script adaptation for Chicago) goes back to Rosenthal’s original intentions and places Eliot and his worries centre stage so the actions of others are clearly seen through his eyes. Thompson has also reduced cast numbers to an essential 8 from the 14 in the TV play and 12 in the original musical, making for a much tighter focus on the plot, and Don Black has written new lyrics to previously unheard Styne compositions to complement  the revisions.

Lara-Stubbs-Lesley-Sue-Kelvin-Rita-Robert-Maskell-Victor.-Bar-Mitzvah-Boy-Production-Stills.-Upstairs-at-the-Gatehouse © Kim Sheard Photography

Sue Kelvin and Robert Maskell, as Eliot’s parents Rita and Victor Green, bring out the heart and soul of the aspirational Jewish working class, particularly in the numbers ‘The Bar Mitzvah of Eliot Green’ and ‘We’ve Done Alright. The whole cast is in great voice, but Sue Kelvin's is a marvel - huge, brassy and tender as appropriate. There’s a fine, wonderfully warm performance, beautifully sung, by Lara Stubbs as Lesley, Eliot’s older sister (lucky the new teenager who has one as perceptive and supportive as this!) , who brings everyone together at the end. Will she end up with her current boyfriend, the over-nice Harold (Nicholas Corre) who comes into his own delivering “Harold’s Dilemma'?

Adam Bregman makes his professional debut as Eliot and celebrated his own Bar Mitzvah last year! He is the archetypal 13 year old trying to make sense of the world and those around him and he doesn’t let lyrics or tunes get in the way of conveying what Eliot is trying to tell us. And there's a delicious performance from Hannah Rose-Thompson, as Denise, Eliot's mouthy playground mate, much more than just Rosenthal's clever prism for looking at Eliot's dilemma through non Jewish eyes (and providing a way out of it in the end).

Playing supporting roles in the adult world, Jeremy Rose is pitch perfect as Rabbi Sherman and Hayward B Morse makes Granddad loveable and just a tad irritating as all good Jewish Granddad's should be ...

The big surprise is that only Sue Kelvin and Adam Bregman are actually Jewish. The whole cast invests every performance with a real unforced authenticity

The Gatehouse is configured long and thin but Stewart Nicholls’ musical staging and direction makes good use of the space so that choreography seems both natural and appropriate and never over the top. Edward Court’s four-man band provide richer support than you might expect from a quartet, with an evocative, klezmer vibe to match the music– it’s a pity they were mostly hidden behind a fringed curtain on Grace Smart’s otherwise uncluttered set. Yes the plot is still thin, the music still too American for 1970’s Willesden, but there’s an integrity here that Jack Rosenthal would probably have approved of. Will it be a smash hit? Go and see for yourselves, you’ll have a lovely time deciding.

By Judi Herman

Bar Mitzvah Boy runs until Sunday 10 April, 7.30pm & 4pm, £18-£22, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate Village, N6 4BD; 020 8340 3488. www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com

As well as Saturday 16 & Sunday 17 April, 7.30pm & 3pm, £22, £18 concs, at The Radlett Centre, Herts, WD7 8HL; 01923 859 291. www.radlettcentre.co.uk