Bad Jews**** (St James Theatre)

Posted: February 5, 2015 in Theatre

bad jewsA bold title, particularly in view of recent events, and delicate subject matter too, but, as Book of Mormon has demonstrated emphatically, it is possible for a show to get away with almost anything if it is funny enough. So, no problem, because Joshua Harmon’s depiction of dysfunctional Jewish family life, already a big hit in America, is laugh-out-loud funny for nearly all of its 100 minutes. Jonah and Liam are brothers, Daphna is their cousin and the three are temporarily sharing Jonah’s New York studio apartment to attend the funeral of their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. Daphna brandishes her Jewishness like a medal of honour, Liam is more respectful towards Japanese culture than his own and Jonah just wants to be left out of it. The opening is slow; it takes a few minutes for it to register just how much of a horror Daphna (Jenna Augen) is – self-righteous and using tactless, acid put-downs to bulldoze over everyone, she is the Jewish matriarch of countless New York comedies, except that she is at least 20 years younger than those stereotypes. “Pappy” left a family heirloom and she wants it, but Liam actually has it, paving the way for total warfare. Liam (Ilan Goodman, son of Henry) is a picture of smouldering rage until Daphna exits to the bathroom when he lets rip with a marathon rant, one of the play’s great set pieces. Another follows when Melody (Gina Bramhill), Liam’s demure, non-Jewish girlfriend, defies her name with an excruciating rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime. Underneath all the hilarity, Harmon is questioning the places of faith and tradition in the modern world and showing us how Daphna and Liam are equally in the wrong – she flaunting hollow values, he denying his heritage yet secretly clinging to it. In a beautifully poignant ending, it is the seemingly passive Jonah (Joe Coen) who shows us a better way to balance conflicting forces. Michael Longhurst’s production, sharp and often raucous, elicits a quartet of superb performances each with impeccable comic timing. It will be bad news if Bad Jews does not make its way to a longer run somewhere in the West End.

Performance date: 4 February 2015

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