As a rule, I don't repeatedly tell 50-odd people in a moderately sized room that "I deserve salmon" on a weekday evening, but such is the force of the Fringe and Emmy Blotnick's bubbly nature that it would have been churlish not to have joined in. The 31-year-old New…
When witty Jewish writing duo George Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote this back-of-the-movie-lot comedy, set at the birth of the talkies, neither had been to Hollywood, but they knew enough about the goings-on in the movie business to know it would suit their satirical wise-cracking style. Kaufman co-wrote The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers for the Marx Brothers and this witty habitué of the Algonquin Round Table never lost his sense of sarcasm. He said about one play: "I saw it under adverse conditions; the curtain was up!" The plotlines in their collaborations were primarily Hart’s while Kaufman focused on the witty, sarcastic dialogue.
It's 1928 and The Jazz Singer, the first all-talking picture, is a sensation. Three struggling vaudevillians, sardonic May Daniels, smooth-operator Jerry Hyland and their stooge George Lewis, the "best deadpan feeder in the business", head west to present themselves as elocution experts, hoping to teach movie stars to speak on screen. With help from gossip columnist Helen Hobart, they’re hired by megalomaniac film mogul Herman Glogauer (Harry Enfield making his theatrical debut), who is trying to come to terms with talking pictures. "Things were going along fine. You couldn't stop making money – even if you made a good picture, you made money."
The three encounter a proverbial dumb blonde wannabe actress and her pushy mum, a playwright driven to distraction and then a sanatorium by studio bureaucracy, a silent-screen beauty with a screeching voice, and Glogauer’s faithful put-upon receptionist.
Glogauer hails dimwit George as a visionary genius, when he is the only one to tell him to his face that he turned down the VitaPhone sound film system. Glogauer makes him head of production and it all goes wrong – or right? – from there…
Director Richard Jones and designer Hyemi Shin set the action on a clever revolve, with lightning-fast set changes rolling through train carriages, offices and studios. The plot gains momentum as the action hots up. Claudie Blakely’s lightly acerbic May sparks off Kevin Bishop’s laid-back Jerry and John Marquez’s increasingly confident and funny George. Lucy Cohu’s wondrously-clad grande-dame columnist exudes authority, Amy Griffiths’ silent-screen star is literally a scream and Lizzy Connolly is deliciously dumb and dumber in a succession of wigs and gowns (all hail costume designer Nicky Gillibrand). And Amanda Lawrence’s receptionist steals scenes without pulling focus – her physicality, the mobility of her face, her comic delivery – she is simply riveting.
Harry Enfield’s Glogauer is curiously understated, though he delivers wonderful lines such as "That's the way we do things here – no time wasted on thinking" with (dare I say it) Trump-like panache.
And more please of that joyous sense of insanity and frenzy demanded by the plot, the lines and the built-in wise-cracking from a Marx Brothers scriptwriter. Richard Jones successfully populates the studio lot with a substantially smaller cast than in the original show. As his production gains pace, it will zip along in the gleeful and effervescent way the silly ploy and vivacious dialogue demand. It’s already a fun evening in the theatre with lots of laughs to be had in the run up to Christmas and a happy New Year.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Johan Persson
Once in a Lifetime runs until Saturday 14 January, 7.30pm (Mon-Sat) & 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only), note there are no performances 24 & 31 Dec, £10-£35, at Young Vic Theatre, SE1 8LZ; 020 7922 2922. www.youngvic.org
Often at shiva prayers it strikes me how much the late-lamented might have enjoyed the gathering of nearest and dearest, but would they have enjoyed the eulogies? Might they not have confessed (or complained) “that’s not the real me, warts and all”? David Baddiel goes further in his scurrilous tribute to his late mother, who died suddenly in 2014. He confides in his audience that Sarah Baddiel loved not only being centre stage, but also a bearded, pipe-smoking golf salesman for 20 years – apparently unnoticed by her husband, even wangling him an invitation to David’s bar mitzvah. Seriously, he’s there in the photo album.
If you think that this might make for uncomfortable laughter, don't worry. Sarah herself gives posthumous sanction, caught on camera delighted at being the centre of attention as a volunteer audience member in a TV comedy panel game starring Baddiel and Frank Skinner. To her son’s visible discomfiture she pulls focus by writing something on the board that offers far too much information about her sex life – his mortification is complete when he feels he must correct her spelling of an unmentionable word to boot.
What follows is an exasperated and affectionate no-holds-barred exposé, not just of the nuts and bolts of her grand passion, but also of her foibles. Her lover sold golfing memorabilia, so, presumably working on the theory that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, she set up a rival business.
She would send inappropriate emails to her lover, copying in her sons, perhaps so they could share her facility with misplaced inverted commas. I found myself weeping - with laughter. Sarah would surely have loved sharing the joke too.
Baddiel is wonderfully at home alone onstage, on a set (production design by Declan Randall) decked out like a Jewish rococo living room, surrounded by family photos in frames of every shape and on every surface including the back walls, underfoot a black-and-tan Persian-style carpet.
Baddiel’s father Colin survives Sarah, but perhaps his son is in mourning for him too, for he has dementia – a particularly difficult form called Pick’s disease, which makes him extraordinarily foul-mouthed, aggressive and – you’ve guessed it – prone to sexually inappropriate behaviour. Baddiel gets laughs when he responds to the neurologist’s explanation of the symptoms: "Sorry, does he have a disease or have you just met him?" He gets guffaws when he shares the Daily Mail’s shock-horror headline: "David Baddiel’s agony amid fears he is contracting dementia". And he gets my sympathy and admiration for finding and sharing the funny in losing his parents.
By Judi Herman
My Family: Not the Sitcom runs from Tuesday 28 March - Saturday 3 June. 8pm, 3pm (Wed & Sat only), from £23.50, at Playhouse Theatre, WC2N 5DE. www.playhousetheatrelondon.com
Suitable for ages 16+ as the show contains mature language and subject matter
Filmmaker Gary Sinyor’s irreverent retelling of the Exodus story starts with the baby left floating on the Nile when the Princess takes up Moses, a nicer baby who doesn’t cry and has a proper - er – Moses basket. NotMoses grows up a slave in Prince Moses’ shadow, until God orders both of them to lead the Israelites out of bondage – though it takes feisty Miriam to lead the Exodus. Synor’s intent was Life of Brian meets The Ten Commandments, but it’s rather more Carry On Taking the Tablets, silly humour that sends up the biblical story and religion. Like the Carry On films it could just get the audience vote and become a cult hit.
Knowledge of the Bible and its language (or the first five books anyway) certainly helps, and Synor displays his lightly, learned in cheder (religion school) and synagogue in his Manchester childhood. It all starts with a comedy canter through the stories of the patriarchs leading up to the plight of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt. The Bible lesson turns out to be an extended sermon from Leon Stewart’s well-meaning, though misguided (and anachronistic) rabbi, ministering to the Hebrew slaves. A bit of popular culture helps too as Joseph inevitably bursts into song …
You can’t fault the cast for playing the characters with sincerity as well as a knowing twinkle, for staying in character and not sending it up unless appropriate. Greg Barnett invests NotMoses with the determination and frustration of the atheist who doesn’t believe in God, ready to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt without anyone’s help. He is comedy paired with Thomas Nelstrop’s Moses, a preppie budding accountant at the palace who grows the beard and perfects the biblical epic lingo once he's heard God in the Burning Bush - and had his kebabs singed there (ooh, Matriarch!).
There’s the expected cast of stock characters, notably the admirable Jasmine Hyde channeling Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo, Niv Patel's pouting, petulant Rameses and Joe Morrow as a camp, crowd-pleasing slave driver. But Moses’ sister, Miriam, is a modern fighter for equal women’s rights in this very patriarchal world and Danielle Bird delivers the strongest and most serious speech of the evening with great compassion and conviction.
Life at number 613 (the number of commandments Jews are supposed to keep - geddit), where NotMoses lives with his slave parents, provides a send up of Jewish family life with a nod to Fiddler on the Roof, the Papa (Dana Haqjoo doubling as a legless Pharoah, squatting on his throne like a Dr Who villain or Dan Dare’s Mekon) bemoaning his lack of riches and the Mama (Antonia Davies) preoccupied with food and finding a nice Jewish girl for her son.
And struggling with a series of diktats heralded by thunder, the chosen people have spotted that the Divine Being is also preoccupied with food, not to mention clothing. In the light of the laws on keeping kosher and synagogue readings from of the Torah in recent weeks dwelling in detail on what priests should wear, Sinyor has a point. This is a family Being too, who has to deal with his difficult adolescent Child (presumably omnipresent rather than anachronistic), an extra dimension to ponder, voiced by 13-year-old Izzy Lee at this performance.
There are, of course, plenty more anachronisms, word jokes and double-entendres, from Jethro, Moses' future father-in-law, offering meat he says “Is-lamb” to the toilet humour of the effects of eating unleavened bread (matzah). It often smacks of student revue or something a synagogue youth drama group might come up with for a fundraiser, which does mean there are actually real nuggets of crowd-pleasing fun amongst the groans and lamer jokes.
Synor says the project started life as a film script and this shows in the too frequent fadeouts between the many scenes, effectively salvaged though by Carla Goodman’s sparse sets and Lola Post Production’s epic visual effects creating Egyptian palaces and pyramids and an impressive divided Red Sea, to the soundtrack of Erran Baron Cohen’s matching epic music. The plague of rather realistic plastic frogs which rains down on stage and audience alike is a nice (or should that be nasty) touch.
Some years ago, the playwright Steve Waters wrote that working with a good director is rather like going into analysis – however lucid you might feel to yourself, what emerges in the production of a play exceeds your intention. “Your set might be definitive, your dream cast fixed, but your play in the hands of another often yields a far more surprising piece of theatre than you're capable of envisaging.”
It would have been interesting to see what emerged with a theatre director at the helm and without the expectations of West End opening, albeit in the intimate surroundings of the Arts Theatre, but nevertheless, it certainly gets a lot of laughs so it could prove to be that cult hit.
By Judi Herman
NotMoses runs until 14 May 2016, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £19.50-£49.50, at Arts Theatre, Great Newport St, WC2H 7JB, 020 7836 8463. https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk