Archive for July, 2022

Bad Jews (Arts Theatre)

Posted: July 27, 2022 in Uncategorized
Photo: xzEllie Kurttzj

Writer: Joshua Harmon

Director: Jon Pashley


There must be something really good about Bad Jews. Repeated appearances in the West End over a period of more than seven years indicate enduring popularity with audiences. The play, an aggressive, dark comedy by American writer Joshua Harmon, premiered in New York in 2013 before opening at the Ustinov Studios in Bath in 2014 with a production which transferred to London. 

In similar fashion to the hit musical Book of Mormon, the comedy satirises features of a religious group, pushes hard against the boundaries of good taste and, seemingly, ends up offending nobody. It is the perfect antidote to the anodyne comedies that can emerge from over-adherence to modern codes of political correctness.

Harmon gets away with it simply because his depiction of dysfunctional Jewish family life is laugh-out-loud funny for nearly all of its 90 minutes running time (no interval). Jonah and Liam are brothers, Daphna is their cousin and the three are temporarily corralled together in Jonah’s New York studio apartment in order to attend the funeral of their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. Daphna brandishes her Jewishness like a medal of honour, Liam, who arrives with his girlfriend a day late, is more respectful towards Japanese culture than his own and Jonah just wants to be left out of the rows that inevitably ensue. 

The play’s opening scene is slow; it takes a few minutes for it to register just how much of a horror Rosie Yadid’s Daphna is; her self-righteousness and her use of tactless, acid put-downs to bulldoze over her kin are a shocking joy. She is the Jewish matriarch of countless New York comedies, albeit 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. Ashley Margolis’ Liam is a picture of suppressed rage until Daphna exits to the bathroom, when he lets rip with a marathon rant, one of the play’s great set pieces. 

Another highlight follows when the ironically named Melody (Olivia Le Andersen), Liam’s demure, non-Jewish girlfriend, gives an excruciating rendition of Summertime from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Underlying all the hilarity, Harmon is questioning the places of faith and tradition in the modern world and showing us how the behaviour of both Daphna and Liam is equally reprehensible; she is flaunting hollow, materialistic values and he is denying his heritage, while secretly clinging to it. Poignantly, the seemingly passive Jonah (Charlie Beaven) demonstrates that there is a more dignified way to balance conflicting forces. 

For this revival, Jon Pashley takes over the director’s reins from Michael Longhurst, ensuring maximum mayhem in a minimum of space. In Richard Kent’s design for the cramped studio apartment, there is barely room for the actors to move without tripping over a makeshift bed and the conflict, often raucous, is up close and personal. It will be bad news if Bad Jews does not go on reappearing for some considerable time to come.

Performance date: 26 July 2022

Hand of God (Hope Theatre)

Posted: July 22, 2022 in Theatre

Writer: Sam Butters

Directors: Charlie Derrar and Joseph Siddle


The legendary manager Bill Shankly famously said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you it’s much more serious than that”. The quote springs to mind while hearing Kieron, the central figure of Same Butters’ 65-minute play Hand of God, describe how the game reaches into every corner of his daily existence.

The play, set in the heart of the Black Country, is transplanted by Tectum Theatre to this pub theatre, which is little more than a long goal kick from Arsenal’s stadium. Kieron (played by Butters himself) supports West Bromwich Albion in the professional game and plays irregularly for Blackheath Town in a local five-a-side league. In frustration, he forms a breakaway team, Dyslexia Untied, recruiting drug dealers to fill the remaining four places.

This show is no Hamilton, but it borrows from the hit musical’s trick of using hip-hop to develop a narrative. Music, described as “garage” in style is composed by Charlie O’Connor, who performs frantically as the DJ and also comes on as substitute for the first team. Co-directors Charlie Derrar and Joseph Siddle keep the production close to boiling point and also provide lyrics.

The play makes only passing references to Diego Maradonna, to whom its title alludes, but draws on the natural humour that is ingrained in football and its followers. However, Butters is at his strongest, both as writer and actor, when focussing on the serious issues of drug abuse and the strained relationship between Kieron and his father. For long periods, the pathos is suppressed, making it all the more powerful when it is finally unleashed.

Hand of God shows a genuine understanding of the role played by football in shaping otherwise ordinary lives and in strengthening cross-generational bonds. So, the critical question is whether Butters’ modest offering is sufficiently on the ball to lure audiences away from the women’s game on their television screens on sweltering July evenings. The short answer must be that it just about is.

Performance date: 21 July 2022

Photo: Johan Persson

Writers: Ed Curtis

Director: Jonathan Church


With Beverley Knight having gone off to a nunnery (she’s now starring in   Sister Act), The Drifters Girl sails on with new crew at the helm. Stepping in is Grammy-nominated Broadway star Felicia Boswell, who brings with her enough pizazz to make sure that West End audiences will stand by the show for quite a while longer.

Unapologetically, this is a juke box musical, packing the hits (a couple of dozen at a rough count) of The Drifters, a four-man American vocal group of the 1950s and 60s, into 140 minutes of low brow, high energy entertainment. Audiences are likely to enter the theatre already humming the show’s tunes and to leave it singing them loudly. If expectations are set no higher than that, then, from the dazzlingly-staged opening medley through to the heartwarming finale, nothing will disappoint.

Normally, shows like this tell the rags-to-riches story of a musical act catapulted to fame, but the over-familiar format is thwarted here by the fact that The Drifters is more a brand name than a fixed group of individual singers. Working from an idea by Tina Treadwell, Ed Curtis’ book turns the spotlight on the group’s ambitious and single-minded manager, Faye Treadwell and her struggles to steer the group to international success. She combats law suits, frequent changes in the group’s composition and loss, while racial and gender prejudice add some real meat to the story. Interestingly, problems encountered on a tour of the United Kingdom are seen as comparable to those in America’s Deep South.

Boswell’s gutsy performance holds it all together and she throws in a show stopping belter in each half. Child actors in rotation play Tina, to whom Faye narrates the story, but the company consists of just four others; it seems like a lot more. Adam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Maud are always The Drifters, fitting in neatly with the concept that, regardless of changes in personnel, the group remains essentially the same. The four sing and dance to Karen Bruce’s choreography superbly and they also take on all the other roles (including, to much amusement, Bruce Forsyth).

Anthony Ward’s set designs make much use of fluorescent lighting, combining with Fay Fullerton’s glam costumes to give the show a glitzy feel fitting for its era, while a nine-strong orchestra, under the direction of Will Stuart, backs up with a full sound. Director Jonathan Church’s slick, fast-paced production had already become a well-oiled machine in waiting for its new star to step in and light up the West End. The Drifters Girl remains undemanding and often predictable, but it is still irresistible.

Performance date: 14 July 2022

The Lesson (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: July 2, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Skin Yum

Writer: Eugène Ionesco

Director: Max Lewendel


Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco became a darling of the French avant-garde movement in the 1950s and some of his absurdist comedies, most notably Rhinoceros, were also celebrated on this side of the Channel. The Lesson is a short one-act play dating from 1953, but what, if anything, can we learn from it today?

The big challenge for director Max Lewendel is to give the kiss of life to a dated piece which many could regard as already moribund. Using a translation by Donald Watson, he starts promisingly with a trio of excellent performances. Jerome Ngonadi is the bombastic and increasingly tyrannical Professor, charged with tutoring his 40th student of the day. Hazel Caulfield is the bouncy, over-enthusiastic Pupil who aims to sit for her doctorate in three weeks’ time and begins by struggling to learn how to count from one to ten. 

Julie Stark, playing a cross between a housekeeper and a dominatrix, interrupts the lesson from time to time with pleas for the Professor to keep his actions under control. As the Professor fails to heed the warnings and the Pupil develops a raging toothache, the lesson moves from mathematics to languages and a tussle for power develops, edging ever closer to mortal combat. 

Set designer Christopher Hone comes up with a traditional study with fittings which open out to reveal an array of blackboards. Ben Glover is credited for video design and creative captioning, using the blackboards to display imaginative graphics at all stages of the production and also, for the benefit of the hearing impaired, the play’s text. There is no shortage of invention in Lewendel’s energetic revival, but all of it combined is not enough to cover up the fact that long stretches in the middle of the play are almost unbearably turgid.

Ways of interpreting Ionesco’s intent could include seeing the play as a satire on the rigidity of formal learning, or as a dire warning against the perils of fascism. However, it may be best not to look too deeply for hidden meanings and simply accept it as an absurd load of nonsense, possibly as the writer meant it to be. Neither particularly educational nor enough fun, sitting through The Lesson most resembles serving out 80 minutes as a punishment in after school detention.

Performance date: 1 July 2022