Review: The Homecoming ★★★★ – Judi Herman is drawn in by the vile power of Pinter

Homecoming-John Simm © Marc Brenner I saw the original production of Harold Pinter’s dark, multi-award-winning comedy as a precocious, theatre-mad teenager. I wouldn't have been allowed near it if it had been a film, it would have been x-rated in those days for sure! The homecoming of the title is the return to the flinty bosom of his East End family of Teddy, a college lecturer Stateside with a murky past in this all-male household ruled over by retired butcher Max. Teddy brings home the, er, "bacon" in the alluring shape of Ruth, his wife of five years. The power play between the brothers, their father and above all between Ruth and her in-laws is the meat of the play. I particularly remember Ian Holm, sinister and dangerous as Lenny the pimp; and Vivien Merchant, Pinter’s first wife, who created the role of Ruth, and the way she crossed her legs causing shock waves to ripple through the theatre – and I don't mean because of the static in her nylons…

Gemma Chan makes the role of Ruth her own in Jamie Lloyd’s spare and scabrously funny production. She has extraordinarily precise body language, at once apparently passive, exposed, vulnerable even, and yet enigmatic – you wonder what is running through her mind as she takes a lone night stroll outside her husband’s family home. You wait uncomfortably for a reaction when she meets these unlovable foul-mouthed Londoners (Max habitually refers to all women, including his late wife, as bitches and worse), enduring their bullying and menacing in apparently dignified silence. Then there is that pivotal see-saw moment where the power shifts. It is suddenly obvious that Ruth has the measure of John Simm’s predatory Lenny. In her hands, the glass of water Pinter gives her as a bargaining chip turns not into wine, but a dangerous, potential aphrodisiac.

Homecoming © Marc Brenner

Although there are scenes when director Jamie Lloyd (who worked with Pinter himself on productions of his plays) brilliantly fields the whole dysfunctional family, it’s the tussles in those duologues, precisely calibrated by both actors and director, that are the guilty pleasures for me. Every family member is on the take, using and abusing each other is second nature and the language is shocking and brutal, but it’s the way this family communicates and it’s almost as if the care they take to choose their epithets is the way they show they care.

John Simm and Ron Cook open the play with cross-generational sparring that sets the tone and they create a magnificently vile father and son relationship. Cook is all ineffectual, bullying bluster and Simm is immediately silky and menacing – a terrific exponent of Pinter. Gary Kemp’s Teddy is a fine study in disintegration from lofty academic to his old place low in the pecking order in this disreputable band of brothers. Keith Allen’s Sam, a chauffeur by trade, intimates why he might be a bachelor, though this can never be articulated in this testosterone-fuelled household, where youngest brother Joey is a failing boxer (effectively ineffectual in John Macmillan’s almost touching performance). This starry ensemble cast works together wonderfully to create Pinter’s claustrophobic world on Soutra Gilmour’s clever set – a sparsely furnished room dominated by Dad’s ancient armchair. Lighting designer Richard Howell transforms the realism into what looks a terrifying 3D projection that traps the characters in a blood red frame, to sound designer George Dennis’ perfect, brash soundtrack.

Pinter would have been proud of his amanuensis!

By Judi Herman

'The Homecoming' runs until 13 February 2016, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £29.50-£69.50, at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, SW1A 2DY; 0844 871 7632.

Kapunka – small but perfectly proportioned at only 12 minutes

The tale of crafty Shmulik – who sees his way round the rabbinate law of shmita that decrees land be left fallow every seven years – is timely for this is that seventh year. Shmulik’s solution to sell his land temporarily to Changrong, his senior Thai worker, with the idea of buying it back when the year is up, inevitably goes spectacularly wrong. And I do mean spectacularly! To reveal more would be a shame, but director Tal Greenberg’s abrasively funny film may well remain a unique opportunity to marvel at a Thai temple sprouting in an Israeli field like Jack’s beanstalk. Greenberg’s cinematography is gorgeous, colouring a vivid landscape, the Spaghetti Western score is spot on for a comic confrontation on the land and the actors are wonderfully matched. It’s great to see the significant community of Thai workers in Israel given space too. Greenberg is definitely one to watch. By Judi Herman

Kapunka is screened with What's in a Name in London on the following dates:

Wednesday 11 November 6.30pm, Odeon Swiss Cottage, 96 Finchley Rd, NW3 5EL; 033 3006 7777. 6.45pm, JW3, 341-351 Finchley Rd, NW3 6ET; 020 7433 8988 (as part of an evening of comic shorts). 8.30pm, Odeon South Woodford, 60-64 High Rd, E18 2QL; 087 1224 4007.

Saturday 14 November 6.45pm, JW3, 341-351 Finchley Rd, NW3 6ET; 020 7433 8988.

Find further info at

Review: Treasure ★★★ – Pinski’s parade of shtetl shnorrers would do Gogol’s Government Inspector proud, says Judi Herman

© Richard Lakos Could Pinksi be the Jewish Gogol? His story certainly follows in the great tradition of The Government Inspector. It makes you wonder if he could possibly know the writings of that 16th-century sceptic Ben Jonson, whose citizen comedies Volpone and The Alchemist also depend on wily antiheroes pulling the wool over the eyes of a succession of greedy, gullible types for whom you have no sympathy at all.

Chone the gravedigger’s affable idiot son Judke brings home a stash of gold coins. He’s dug them up in the corner of the graveyard where he’s buried his beloved dog. Trouble is, he can’t remember exactly where that is, so there’s no way of knowing how much more there is, if any. His pretty, resourceful sister Tille seizes on as the opportunity of a lifetime, with a clever ruse to use the money to buy a premature ‘trousseau’ to convince folk (especially marriage brokers and prospective bridegrooms) that there’s a fabled amount more where that came from. Her gloomy, grasping parents though, see the coins – and her ruse – as a threat rather than an opportunity, which will just attract all the wrong sort of attention. In a way both are correct, you could see the glass as half full or half empty.

The delicious Tille, (truly scrumptious, in Olivia Bernstone’s glowing performance) does indeed attract a matchmaker to her door straightaway. But he is followed by a parade of ever more grasping and opportunistic denizens of the shtetl, from the President of the synagogue to the previous owner of the field where Judke is presumed to have found the coins.

Pinski’s comedy descends into potentially uproarious farce as the villagers themselves descend on the graveyard on their frantic treasure hunt. Yet he also builds in moments of quiet storytelling – a small chorus of children exchanging moral tales. And the climax of the play even takes in magical realism, for the residents of the graveyard rise to compare notes on the eventful night when the living literally trample on their graves, in their obsession with what is transitory, material.

As discussed in the current issue of JR and elsewhere on this blog, Pinski’s play was extraordinarily popular and remained in the Yiddish repertoire over 30 years, until the Shoah, when it was even performed in the Vilna Ghetto.

© Richard Lakos

On the strength of Alice Malin’s production at the Finborough Theatre, the main attraction must be Pinski’s heroine, an extraordinarily outspoken and sensual young woman, rising like the phoenix above the strictures of life, especially for a woman, in this small, claustrophobic Jewish community. So obviously in command of the situation is she, that the visiting marriage broker soon realises that it makes sense to deal directly with her, cutting out her mother, the middle woman. She is inspired, intoxicated by the coins that represent a way out of poverty if she plays her cards right. That of course is in the writing but Bernstone revels in Tille’s ingenuity and sheer spunk!

The contrast with her mother, Jachne-Braine’s (Fiz Marcus) constantly downturned mouth and disapproving voice and mien, is obviously important. The clue is in her name for Jachne can suggest a woman is not just a gossip and busybody but also coarse or shallow.

Meanness seems to run in the family, for so poor are the gravedigger and his wife that they are prepared to fight their children for the coins. This is hardly the archetypal Jewish mother looking out for her child and the money gets in the way of Chone's (James Pearse) paternal feelings too. Luckily for Sid Sagar’s touchingly gangling and awkward Judke, he and Tille do look out for each other and there is a sweetnesss in the bond between them.

Adaptor Colin Chambers a prolific theatre writer. Indeed, his book Other Spaces was an inspiration for me at university. His translation includes some useful nips and tucks, though for my money, he could have made a few more. Those children telling tales have been left to their own devices by parents who have only treasure hunting on their minds. I guess Pinski deliberately changes pace and slows down the momentum here, but this interlude of Brechtian moralising from these precocious infants (the young actors acquit themselves very well, but their characters are perhaps a little priggish) is not entirely successful. And each hopeful, acquisitive visitor to the apparently nouveau riche household rather out stays their welcome, once they have established their characters and motives.

Chambers’ translation, with its carefully-chosen words has that ‘old-fashioned’ feel that gives a sense of a different time and place, though it does perhaps feel a trifle self-conscious. Alice Malin directs her large (19-strong) cast with a larger-than-life playing style to match, which again would work even better if the scenes were shorter. Fiz Marcus’ Jachne-Braine in particular and James Pearse’s Chone to a lesser extent, adopt facial masks and find a trope and a note for their characters, though again, both would be even more effective if the scenes were shorter.

Designer Rebecca Brower’s dark all-wooden set plays its part in creating the lost world of the shtetl. It’s about as spacious as I have seen in the Finborough’s tiny space, which is just as well with such a large cast of villagers. Happily Fiddler on the Roof without the music it is not (although there is music for atmosphere and to link scenes, it is not live or specially composed, which is perhaps a missed opportunity). But it throws light on a fascinating writer and his vital contribution to the body of popular Yiddish literature.

By Judi Herman

Treasure runs until Saturday 14 November. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 0844 847 1652.

Review: The Merchant of Venice ★★★★ – Judi Herman finds funny girls on top form in Anna Niland’s pithy UK premiere of Tom Stoppard’s abridged version

© Helen Maybanks The 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto might take place in 2016, but I feel as if I’ve already spent some time with its embattled Jewish community, at least as seen through Shakespeare’s eyes, as I watch The Merchant of Venice for the fourth time this year.

I guess this might be in contrast to the excited, noisily appreciative, mostly young audience at the National Youth Theatre's sparky and sparklingly funny production. Even if they are studying the play at school, this might be the first time they've seen it, so it’s good to be able to report how much they enjoyed a comic treat. The play is after all dubbed a comedy, even though it also presents huge problems and not just for the Jews in the audience.

The young cast is not afraid to hit those problems head on. The NYT originally performed this version by Tom Stoppard in China in 2008 with a cast made up of both young British and Chinese actors. This was the year of the Beijng Olympics, so they experienced artistic censorship “heightened by human rights controversy”, writes director Anna Niland in a programme note. Despite this, she continues, “the play’s themes of persecution, racism and inclusion rang true to local audiences and our young international cast.

"With Italy experiencing an immigration crisis that brings these themes to the fore, I have decided to set the play in modern Venice. However, I also think it’s crucial to hang onto a semblance of the historic Venice Shakespeare was writing about.” She goes on to talk about exploring the play through the eyes of Shylock the ‘alien’ and posits that the production “will ask how much has really changed for those considered alien today.”

The production sets out its stall before the play begins, with establishing shots – silent face-offs between the main protagonists, much of it to the gorgeous accompaniment of composer and musical director Tristan Parkes’ setting of 'In Belmont lives a lady…' perfect for Grace Surey's smoky voice. She is surely a future jazz star. The Christians may exchange meaningful glances, perhaps to establish the possibly homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, but all of them glare at Shylock. Andrew Hanratty’s Antonio has a gravitas beyond his years and Jason Imlach’s Bassanio sports a useful beard which gives him maturity too. Add to this Luke Pierre’s tall, rather elegant Shylock and it’s easy to take all three very seriously indeed.

And just because Pierre’s Shylock is so dignified, the contempt in which he is held by Antonio and Bassanio, and later his humiliation and ruin by Portia in court, have the power to shock.  True, Shylock and Antonio gingerly shake hands, which is more contact than I’ve seen in other productions this year, but then the eponymous merchant does indeed ‘spit upon’ Shylock’s ‘Jewish gabardine’. I’ll assume the couple of titters evoked by those Jew-baiters and haters Salerio and Salanio (a vicious double act from Oliver West and Conor Meaves) thrusting the pig-head masks they are wearing at Shylock, were down to discomfort.

The gabardine in question is made rather a colourful affair by the addition of coloured ribbons at the waist, evoking tzitzes (the prayer fringes of the Orthodox Jew) with the colours perhaps also suggesting the Spanish origins of this Sephardi Jew.

© Helen Maybanks

Cecilia Carey's striking costume and design are a vital part of Niland's bold concept. Her Carnival-time Venice is exuberantly, edgily stylish but in its own almost eccentric way. True the Carnival masks are traditional, but Alice Feetham's poised, intelligent Portia is a lady in red with a style and sexy panache all her own. It's in eye-catching contrast to Jessica's black and pink pleats beneath a clever cape which becomes a hood when she pulls it over her head, as a modest Jewish maiden should, to go outdoors.

But the apogee of her costume design is surely the extraordinary confection sported by Lauren Lyle's wildly funny Prince of Arrogan (their spelling - possibly Stoppard's - not mine!). Lyle brilliantly exploits its slinky contours and purple sash to create her comically androgynous suitor and relishes sashaying on impossibly high platforms, as she quite literally feels up each of the 'caskets' as if it were Portia herself! Before I leave the clever cross casting in the comedy roles that ensures jobs for the girls, let me make honourable mention of Paris Campbell's equally ardent Prince of Morocco; and Megan Parkinson's Lancelot Gobbo, the cheekily insouciant servant leaving Shylock's service for Bassanio's, together with versatile Grace Surey as Old Gobbo, his parent, here transformed into Old 'Mother' Gobbo - rather a fine below stairs double act.

This all matches Carey's equally quirky stage design, simple and versatile. The action takes place against a backdrop of huge Venetian (naturally) blinds and those three 'caskets' are actually three wooden structures that work separately or together to create steps, beds and the witness boxes in the courtroom scene.

Their quirkiest use though, is as those caskets, each flying a balloon of the relevant colour, gold, silver and of course lead! But happily there’s no way the so-called casket scene goes down like the proverbial lead balloon! The wickedly playful ‘Team Belmont’ of Feetham’s Portia and Melissa Taylor’s cheerful, wise-cracking Nerissa have a great time sending up the suitors Portia must entertain; and Nerissa’s gleeful rendering of a relevant musical number for each casket – e.g. ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ for the silver casket  - goes down a treat with the audience, who joined in and sang along. Mistress and waiting gentlewoman work up an authentic tension as Bassanio rejects each wrong casket in turn and Portia and Bassanio achieve a touching tenderness as they fall into each other’s arms in relief.

Meanwhile, the tension in the home life of Shylock and Jessica is a much darker affair. Though again the production achieves a touching moment – for me perhaps the most telling. At the climax of the very few lines they share, it’s actually a mute moment. In one of the most moving gestures of the production, Francene Turner’s Jessica, about to leave her father forever, cannot go without giving him a last desperate, lingering hug – a hug that clearly takes him by surprise and moves him too. It's all the more poignant because he does not know its significance. When he learns it though, his rage is all the more understandable, so he earns sympathy when Oscar Porter-Brentford’s supportive Tubal reports that the errant Jessica has given away her late mother’s engagement ring in exchange for a monkey.

Given that a female Doge (stately Ellise Chappell) presides over Venice's court, it might be considered an anomaly that Portia has to disguise herself as a man to appear as a lawyer, but, if anything, in this modern setting it genuinely raises eyebrows that she has to do so, perhaps just because it reminds the audience of the realities of life for women in some countries today. Of course though, for the comedy to work, Bassanio and Gratiano must not recognise their brand new wives, so disguise is a given. Cole Edwards’ Gratiano achieves the brash comedy in his role and displays the casual racism written into his character and Gavi Singh Chera is a Lorenzo as interested in his bride as in her fortune.

Although I’m not entirely convinced that the production draws the parallels with today’s immigration crisis, I am sure that this fresh reading of the play ensures that those who have seen it before take a fresh look at it and those who are new to it will have a clear idea of the comedy and the problems – and what all the fuss is about.

By Judi Herman

The Merchant of Venice runs until Wednesday 2 December. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £12-£19.50. National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX; 020 7452 3000.

Vienna’s Jews and the Ringstrasse

Ringstrasse at Jewish Museum Vienna Vienna’s famous boulevard, the Ringstrasse, was a thriving hub for Jewish bourgeoisie in 19th century Austria. David Herman reviews Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard which accompanies an exhibition on the street at Vienna’s Jewish Museum.

Fin-de-siècle Vienna has become a source of fascination for cultural historians over the past forty years. There are several reasons. It was one of the birthplaces of 20th century art and ideas:  writers such as Schnitzler and Hofmannstahl, painters such as Klimt and Kokoschka, great figures of Modernism from Freud to Schoenberg. “In almost every field of human thought and activity,” writes Ray Monk in his biography of Wittgenstein, “the new was emerging from the old, the twentieth century from the nineteenth.”

However, there is also the fascinating link between cultural creativity and historical crisis: the collapse of liberalism, the break-up of the Habsburg Empire, inflation and then the rise of Austrian fascism. Finally, Jews were at the centre of both the explosion of creativity and the rise of antisemitism. Many of the great creative figures of the turn of the century were Jewish and thousands of Vienna’s Jews were killed by the Nazis or driven into exile, many of them to enrich post-war culture in every field in Britain and America.

What is immediately striking about the exhibition, Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard, is that there are virtually no references to the great names of fin-de-siècle Vienna. No Schoenberg or Wittgenstein. Four references to Stefan Zweig, two to Klimt and Freud, one to Schnitzler. Instead the dominant figures here are the great families of the new Jewish haute bourgeoisie such as the Ephrussis, the subject of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). This is partly a story of architecture, town planning and grand hotels, but more a story of Jewish financiers, bankers and industrialists, the new urban haute bourgeoisie who lived in the great palaces of the Ringstrasse. On the Ringstrasse, writes Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz in her chapter ‘Family Stories’, “the who’s who of Vienna society gathered in their drawing rooms,”  “industrialists mingled with artists, bankers, and writers, politicians, and actors, Jews and non-Jews, men and women.”

It was the young Emperor Franz Joseph who decided to demolish Vienna’s medieval fortifications and develop the land into a magnificent new boulevard of apartment buildings and major administrative and cultural buildings, the symbols of Stefan Zweig’s “world of security” in his memoir, The World of Yesterday. In 1860 the sale of Ringstrasse lots began. Members of the imperial household, high aristocracy and the Jewish upper middle class were the first occupants. However, it was not until the late 1860s and 1870s that the Ringstrasse reached its highpoint and by then a very different class of buyer was moving in.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay is on “Jewish real estate ownership in the Vienna city center and the Ringstrasse area until 1885” by Georg Gaugusch which tells the story of how Jews won the right to buy property in Vienna in the mid-19th century. What happened subsequently was a social revolution. For the first time Jews lived near the centre of Vienna. The Ringstrasse symbolized the rise of a new wealthy class of Jewish industrialists, bankers and financiers. In 1853 Jews owned 17 houses in the old town centre. By 1885 Jews owned 155 buildings on the Ringstrasse. Just as fascinating, few of these new buyers came from Vienna. Almost half came from Moravia, Pressburg, or western Hungary and another large group came from major urban centres in Bohemia or Germany.

This influx of Jews to Vienna and the rise of a new Jewish upper middle class were not welcomed by non-Jews in Vienna. Already around 1869 one anti-Semitic journalist wrote of “A brand new Jerusalem of the East”. In 1870 Franz Friedrich Masaidek wrote of “The Ringstrasse – the Zion Street of new-Jerusalem”. The rise of the Ringstrasse and Vienna’s Jews coincided with the rise of a new virulent anti-Semitism which played such a huge part in Austrian politics for the next seventy-five years. A dark story looms large over the later chapters and it is hard to read this catalogue without a sense of foreboding.

Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard runs until Sunday 18 October at Vienna Jewish Museum. 

Review: Come In! Sit Down! – Judi Herman gladly accepts the invitation

come in sit down, press 2015 On a day when the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported has risen again – and has, as usual, risen to the top of the news – it’s heartening to report on an evening that made an auditorium full of people of different backgrounds and ages laugh a lot together, as a bunch of talented Muslims and Jews mercilessly sent up both with great and good humour.

It’s good too, that this took place at the Tricycle Theatre and that the MuJu Crew is celebrating 10 years since it started life as a youth theatre group to bring together young Jews and Muslims through theatre. Indeed I remember reporting on the group’s early days myself.

One of the secrets of MuJu’s success is that they bring so many talents to create comedy – and musical comedy at that. They boast writing, clowning, improvising and composing experience on their CVs and it shows. In addition other experienced comedy creatives, including Chris Cookson and Dave Cohen (of BAFTA Award-winning Horrible Histories), were on hand with extra input. Another secret is that it’s often hard to tell who is the Muslim and who is the Jew in this talented bunch. For example, the luxuriant dark beard sported by Dominic Garfield proves equally handy to portray assorted Rabbis – and a sexy siren of a Jihadist, clad only in tight pants and velvet waistcoat, luring western women to go East.

What’s not to like about Israeli-type security checkpoints at all entrances to Brent Cross, the delectable prospect of Muslim women with four husbands to satisfy different needs (why limit it to Muslims!) and a chorus of Jihadists rendering 'Let it Go' from Frozen in a whole new way? And I did especially appreciate a sketch that sent up the Tricycle’s recent dilemmas with great good humour.

There’s hard-hitting stuff too. A white journalist captured by Jihadists claims superiority over his Arab counterpart because his execution will be high-profile with media coverage and a star executioner, while his fellow captive can look forward only to the anonymity of a mass execution in the middle of the desert.

It was good to see Daniella Isaacs, featured in Jewish Renaissance recently talking about Mush and Me, the play which she co-created and in which she also toured the UK, in a range of comedy creations – I especially liked the Jewish gap-year princess on the pull in the IDF (you had to be there, as they say). And I loved Amina Zia starring in her own sketch as that smug Muslim wife with four adoring men in attendance.

Everyone clearly had a ball creating Come In! Sit Down! And to add to the exclamation marks, what a friendly title that is!

By Judi Herman

Listen to cast members Daniella Isaacs and Ramzi DeHani talking to Judi (in the busy bar at the Tricycle after the performance): 

Come In! Sit Down! runs until Sunday 2 August. 7.30pm & 3pm. £13. The Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Rd, NW6 7JR; 020 7328 1000.

Review: Death of a Salesman – The RSC's production is a highlight of Arthur Miller's centenary year

Death of a Salesman: L-R - Alex Hassell (Biff), Harriet Walter (Linda Loman), Antony Sher (Willy Loman) and Sam Marks (Happy), 2015 © RSC Director Gregory Doran is in no doubt that Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is the greatest American play of the 20th Century, addressing not only the heartbreaking conflicts within a family, but also bigger issues of national values and uncritical acceptance of the American Dream.

After a life of honest toil, Willy wants to stop travelling, pay off the mortgage and bask in the success of his two sons. But he can’t come to terms with the fact that his life and the lives of his boys are so different from his dreams of wealth and triumph. Miller explores the tragedy of what happens to a man who does not have a grip on the forces of life, as he puts it, whose career is disintegrating and the toll this takes on relationships between family members.

Miller was the son of Austrian-Jewish immigrants. His father worked his way up in New York's Lower East Side garment industry to become a wealthy man. The family lived in Manhattan until they lost it all in the depression and withdrew across the bridge to Brooklyn. As a teenager Miller worked to help supplement the family income with a bread delivery round before school. And he saw at first hand men like his salesman uncle Manny who sold not so much their product as their personality. Indeed, Miller is careful not to reveal what products Willy sells, leaving each audience member to furnish their own and make a closer connection to this everyman left battered and broken by capitalism.

Part of the challenge of the play comes from Miller’s extensive use of what he calls the continuous present – not quite flashbacks but simultaneous layers of memory. This means the actors have to shift almost instantaneously into playing a range of different ages and psychological states, and the production too must find ways of mirroring the layers.

Antony Sher is outstanding as the weary, manic-depressive Willy, from his iconic entrance – “tired to the death” – lugging his two heavy sample cases, through to the man who “realised that selling was the greatest career a man could want”, to the sad soul who opines that "After all the highways and the trains and the appointments and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” Sher’s performance brings out the contradictions in Willy that make him an irritating noodge (insistent bore) and a man whom it is hard not to pity.

Harriet Walter’s Linda is extraordinary. She gives a wonderfully nuanced account of Willy's doting wife, a woman with complete and blinkered devotion to her husband, who simply refuses to see through Willy’s lies and resignedly accepts whatever the "American Dream" throws at her. In a finely restrained performance, Walter seamlessly transitions between younger and older Linda, her face apparently visibly ageing and then losing its lines again. She is heartbreaking as she pleads on his behalf: “I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

Death of a Salesman: Antony Sher (Willy Loman) and Harriet Walter (Linda Loman), 2015 © RSC

Father/son relationships are at the heart of the play. Alex Hassell as Bif, Willy’s older son (Hal to Sher’s Falstaff in Henry IV, so the bond between the two actors is palpable) creates a portrait of a flawed man, haunted by his signal failure to fulfil his early promise as a sportsman, unable to hold down a job, a thief who has stolen from his employers and even been to jail. Yet he still manages to be likeable, perhaps because he values simple pleasures over the rat race. Like his father, he is at once infuriating and touching. Sam Marks is equally convincing as womanising younger brother Happy, as a young version of Willy, reframing situations so they are more acceptable to him. Again, both actors display remarkable ability to switch convincingly between playing younger and older.

Set designer Stephen Brimson Lewis makes clever use of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s thrust stage to deliver people and furniture for the scenes in Willy’s head against a backdrop of high-rise Brooklyn, all fire escapes and windows. Tim Mitchell cleverly lights the semi-transparent set to reflect the transitions between memory and reality.

Miller originally conceived the play to be happening entirely in Willy’s head and Gregory Doran’s production blends time and space so the audience finds itself at the same time both in the film directed by Willy’s mind and in the ‘real world’ of the play. Perhaps the message of Miller’s play is that the American Dream is as much an expression of the internal movie each of the characters runs as the external idea of a life of personal happiness and material comfort.

Unsurprisingly this production, another highlight of Miller’s centenary year, is to transfer to London’s West End as soon as it finishes its run in Stratford-on-Avon.

By Judi Herman

Death of a Salesman runs until May 2 in Stratford-on-Avon and May 9 - July 18 in London. 7.15pm & 1.15pm. £2.50-£70. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, CV37 6BB; 084 4800 1110. 7.30pm & 2pm. £12.25-£59.75. Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4AU; 0844 4825140.

Review: Oppenheimer – A detailed bio-drama about the father of the atomic bomb chills and exhilarates in equal measure

Oppenheimer, press 2014 © Keith Pattison To make a nuclear bomb, you assemble enriched uranium into a supercritical mass that starts an exponentially growing chain reaction. Tom Morton-Smith’s play assembles the team building the first nuclear bomb and shows the chain reaction that ensues amongst them. And just as a bomb needs a trigger, the “Manhattan Project” needed J Robert Oppenheimer.

The play questions whether the physicists were mad scientists who should have known better than to participate in such a project and how far they felt justified at the time, even if subsequently doubting the genie they had unleashed that cannot be put back in the bottle.

Morton-Smith sees the events through the lens of Oppenheimer, intertwining his intellectual struggle with the physics and his emotional struggle with the need to abandon his early and fervent embrace of communism, which Oppenheimer saw as the only remedy to Fascism, in order to appease the US authorities. He had after all been schooled at New York’s Ethical Culture School, where many of his fellow pupils were also secular Jews and where he discovered the ethical teachings of Judaism. And later he was engaged by other ethical texts and scriptures including the Bhagavad Gita (a 700-verse Hindu scripture in Sanskrit), which stayed with him all his life and Morton-Smith has him quote it at the end of the play.

J Robert Oppenheimer (the J stands for Julius) may have been born in Manhattan, but as the son of German-Jewish immigrants, he was acutely aware of the fate overtaking Europe’s Jews, especially as the US scientific community welcomed an influx of eminent Jewish physicists seeking refuge from the Nazis. The list of characters in the play is in part a roll call of these brilliant fugitives, most of whom would go on to win Nobel Prizes. In addition, the young prodigy had studied under (Jewish-born) Max Born in Göttingen in Germany in the 1920s, gaining his PhD at age 22. So he was much exercised by the rise of fascism in Europe.

Oppenheimer, press 2014 © Keith Pattison

After a brief lecture from Oppenheimer, with the audience cast as students, Morton-Smith starts the action with an upbeat party scene on the Berkeley Campus at a Communist fundraiser for International Brigade members off to fight fascism in Spain. It’s the sort of party at which anyone who’s anyone in the intellectual and academic community must be seen. Morton-Smith’s brilliance is to cut between the party and the students and academics in full creative flight as they learn and teach in the lab – using the stage floor as a chalkboard on which they feverishly scribble theorems and theories. Even the chronically unscientific members of the audience (among whose number I count myself) immediately get the feel of how engrossing and exhilarating the pursuit of scientific knowledge and discovery must be for members of the scientific community. This works especially well as a counterpoint to the party segments – all choreographed with huge panache by Scott Ambler.

Everyone in this community is aware of the work of German scientist Werner Heisenberg and his Danish-Jewish mentor Niels Bohr in Europe (as brilliantly imagined in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen). Is Bohr making a stand against letting Hitler get anywhere near the bomb? Does Heisenberg dread the ‘fall-out’ from The USA getting there first? Well, clearly in the USA they see it as a necessity to get there first and scientists are under intense pressure to do so. But Morton-Smith imagines, with the feel of chilling authenticity, not only the pressure but also the febrile excitement of these extraordinarily focused (often one-track) minds as they realise they are nearing a breakthrough, albeit one that will prove deadly to millions.  The detachment with which the boffins discuss the bombs they call Little Boy and Fat Man and what they are capable of, with a matter-of-factness about the numbers of Japanese likely to be sacrificed, is frighteningly convincing.

John Heffernan brilliantly inhabits the persona of Oppenheimer, mesmerisingly charismatic from the moment he engages with the audience at curtain up. He embodies the struggles and contradictions in the man – a womaniser with “a core of cold iron” – with a wife and mistress; scared that he has the scientific ability “to murder every last soul on the planet, yet at the same time a leader who expects to be followed. And indeed he is the magnet that attracts a huge number of scientists to join him at Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer, press 2014 © Keith Pattison

Morton-Smith creates wonderfully authentic communities and he plays up the friction between the unruly scientists and the military with their, ahem, 'military' precision at Los Alamos to terrific and rather comedic effect.

Morton-Smith’s portraits of Oppenheimer’s women are especially complex. There’s Catherine Steadman’s mercurial manic depressive Jean Tatlock, the mistress who checks in and out of his life, in her element rallying the intellectuals for the communist cause. And Thomasin Rand’s wonderfully vivid Kitty, another bright and frustrated female intellect, who leaves her previous husband to marry Oppenheimer, only to find herself reluctantly kicking her heels though not her alcohol habit through pregnancies before and during her stay at Los Alamos.

Angus Jackson directs with panache a large cast in a production that sweeps effortlessly from those cocktail parties in Berkeley to the then empty plain of Los Alamos, thanks to designer Robert Innes Hopkins, whose costumes – especially for the women – are both authentic and stunning, and the action is heightened by Grant Oldman’s exhilarating score played live by a superb six-piece band directed by Jonathan Williams, and that organic choreography by Scott Ambler.

By Judi Herman

Oppenheimer runs until Saturday 23 May. 7.30pm, 2pm (Wed/Sun only). £25-£49.50. Vaudeville Theatre, 404 Strand, WC2R 0NH.

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

Review: Jerry Herman's Grand Tour is a breathless, though tuneful chase across war-torn Europe

The Grand Tour – Zoë Doano (Marianne), Alastair Brookshaw (Jacobowsky), Nic Kyle (The Colonel) - Jan 2015 © Annabel Vere There’s usually a good reason why largely forgotten material from the oeuvre of a master such as Jerry Herman remains forgotten. The Grand Tour had the shortest run of all Herman’s shows and has not even achieved some form of cult status among the cognoscenti, despite US actor Joel Grey starring as the original Jackobowsky.

Thom Southerland’s imaginative staging of The Grand Tour in the tiny space of Finborough Theatre is a minor creative miracle and makes you wonder what made it less than a success in the first place (in the same season as hits such as Sweeney Todd, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and They’re Playing our Song). Perhaps the New York audience wasn’t ready for a chamber musical with production values that didn’t overwhelm the simplicity of the story.

And that’s just what we have here, in the tale of Jacobowsky, a Polish Jew and eternal optimist who's been keeping one step ahead of the Nazis all the way to Paris, and Polish nobleman Colonel Stjerbinsky, who's almost comical in his knee-jerk anti-semitism, and who has papers he must get to London as they play a vital part in the fight against the Nazis. Jacobowsky has a car but can’t drive and the Colonel knows how to drive but has no car. They reluctantly agree to join forces, along with Colonel’s girlfriend, Marianne. The Colonel's initial dislike for Jacobowsky is reinforced as Jacobowsky befriends and then falls in love with Marianne. But is it possible that through their joint experiences in evading the Nazis and learning to survive, the two men might get over their differences and even come to admire each other?

The Grand Tour – Alastair Brookshaw (Jacobowsky) – Jan 2015 © Annabel Vere

Herman's source material was Jacobowsky and the Colonel, an original, semi-autobiographical play by Czech writer Franz Werfel, who collaborated with screenwriter S N Behrman to bring it to the stage in 1944. Like the main character in his play, Werfel, a prominent Jewish intellectual and playwright, was chased all over Europe by the Nazis before successfully escaping to America. Later Danny Kaye played the mercurial Jacobowsky in a film of the same name.

Phil Lindley’s fold out backdrop and fold up floor make maximum use of the limited space to create hotels, countryside, rivers, railway carriages, a café, circus, a Jewish wedding and a Nunnery! And Cressida Carre marshals the 11-strong cast with intricacy and panache to people all these spaces.

What also works this time round is the use of just two pianos, under the musical direction of Joanna Cichonska, to provide the right tone for this small-space chamber musical, allowing the words to dominate. Jerry Herman can’t write an un-tuneful song, even if they are not always memorable, and all 11 numbers here do at least move the plot along rather than hold it up.

The show gets off to a spellbinding start as Alastair Brookshaw’s beautifully understated and thoughtful Jacobowsky opens not with a song but with a whisper. And then he takes his audience into the spine-tingling opening number, 'I'll Be Here Tomorrow', detailing his family's painful path across Europe, settling in one city after another, not just escaping persecution, but making a new life every time. Here Brookshaw has this heartbreaking quality in his voice, but he also displays delicious comic flair, for example in 'Mrs S L Jacobowsky', dreaming of marriage to Catholic Marianne: "I'll go to mass and I'll respect her wishes / And she'll start using separate dishes".

Nic Kyle’s Colonel thaws appropriately in an almost caricature part and gets to sing (beautifully) the best ballad in the piece, the haunting 'Marianne'. Zoe Doano makes a charming Marianne and the rest of the ensemble splendidly fill the many other parts, especially in the requiste first act finale, 'One Extraordinary Thing'.

Southerland’s direction brings out the tension between the European acting style and the US musical style to great effect. It does not always paper over some clunky plotlines and the music just occasionally underwhelms, but this Grand Tour is worth seeing in its own right and not just by collectors of musical ephemera.

By Judi Herman.

The Grand Tour runs until Saturday 21 February. 7.30pm (also 3pm Sat-Sun). £16-£28. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 020 7244 7439.