jenna augen

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.

JR OutLoud: Good shtick on Bad Jews from two of the stars of Joshua Harmon's hit comedy, Jenna Augen and Ilan Goodman

In New York in a bachelor pad high over the Hudson River, cousins Liam and Daphna go head-to-head over a treasured heirloom left by their beloved grandfather, Poppy. Emotions are raw as they mourn his recent death and feelings run high – sometimes shockingly so – for at stake is not just Poppy’s Chai (a neck chain with the Hebrew letter that symbolises life), but a whole set of issues about family and identity and faith. Liam’s brother Jonah and his fiançée Melody don’t just watch from the sidelines either, but enter the fray as it becomes more scabrous and the battle more physical. Thus unfurls the dangerous, yet funny debut play by Joshua Harmon, which is now enjoying its third successful run – the second in London – at the Arts Theatre. Judi Herman caught up with cast members Jenna Augen (Daphna) and Ilan Goodman (Liam) to talk about battling it out live on stage.

By Judi Herman

Bad Jews runs until Saturday 30 May. 7.30pm & 2.30pm (Thu/Sat ony). £20-£49.50. Arts Theatre, Great Newport St, WC2H 7JB; 020 7836 8463.

Read our review of Bad Jews.

Review: Bad Jews – Joshua Harmon's new play about faith, family and funnies

© Robert Workman – Bad Jews Daphna is angry. She’s back from her Ivy League college and is storming petulantly around a claustrophobically small studio apartment like a disgruntled toddler. Her cousin Jonah (Joe Coen) tries relentlessly to ignore the young tyrant as she moans about the fact that Jonah’s brother Liam (Ilan Goodman) has missed their Poppy’s (grandpa) funeral because he was skiing in Aspen with his girlfriend, who isn’t even Jewish. This opening scene sets the audience up perfectly for what’s to come – an hour and a half of increasingly un-passive aggression that’s full of belly laughs.

This new show from 31-year-old Joshua Harmon made its debut in New York in 2012 and was such a hit that in the past year it has become the third-most-produced play in America. The New York-born playwright conceived the idea for Bad Jews just over a decade ago after he attended a “depressingly unmoving” Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial). The service involved grandchildren of Holocaust survivors offering up dispassionate dialogues about their relatives’ traumatising experiences. This got the budding writer considering what it means to be a young Jew in the modern world and whether we should strive to keep alive our religious beliefs and cultures in our children or work towards a religionless and nationless world. Because at the end of the day, should who we are matter?

© Robert Workman – Bad Jews

This issue, while never tackled head-on, throws up various viewpoints throughout as the characters defend their religious and familial loyalties. Daphna – a pushy, furiously sincere “super-Jew” portrayed skilfully by Jenna Augen – and Liam – incredibly bright, but atheist part-time and Jewish when it suits him – bicker and manipulate their way through scenes, ultimately fighting for Poppy’s Chai (symbol for life) necklace, which comes with a heart-breaking backstory.

Kudos must also be given to set designer Richard Kent, whose level of detail plays as huge a part in drawing you in as the actors do. The studio apartment and entrance hallway where Bad Jews takes place is solidly constructed, with minutiae, such as plug sockets, bins and even a leaflet under the neighbour’s door, that make it satisfyingly easy to forget you’re watching from a theatre seat and become fully absorbed in the fast-paced dialogue.

© Robert Workman – Bad Jews

There’s a great comic moment in Bad Jews when Gina Bramhill’s Melody, Liam’s girly gentile girlfriend coyly professes to a fiery Daphna: “It doesn’t matter to me that you’re Jewish,” in a bid to explain we’re all human after all. But it backfires and a leer of sheer disgust remoulds Daphna’s brow as she spits, “It matters to me!” This is just a snippet of Harmon’s deft penmanship – the way he can hint at importance of identity while maintaining a sense of humour. And he does well not to force his personal opinions on the audience, merely planting the seeds of ideas and leaving people to go away thinking about their own. It’s a play full of depth, quick-wit and poignancy. Bad Jews has it all.

By Danielle Goldstein

Bad Jews runs until Saturday 28 February. 2.30pm & 7.30pm. £10-£30. St James Theatre, 12 Palace St, SW1E 5JA; 084 4264 2140.

© Robert Workman – Bad Jews

© Robert Workman – Bad Jews