Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Kenny Wax Limited and Simon Friend
The New Alexandra Theatre
By Joshua Harmon
Directed by Michael Longhurst
In an intensely cramped studio apartment on 84th and Riverside in New York City, three cousins and a misplaced girlfriend teach us about the nature of grief in Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews at the New Alexandra Theatre, produced originally by Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Kenny Wax Limited and Simon Friend.
Ailsa Joy plays Daphna, née Diana, a battleground collegiate Jewish young woman with an acerbic wit and a hard line on essentially everything. Joy is astounding in her control of the character’s swings, jabs, gut punches and well-timed jokes. Her enmity with her older cousin Liam, played in a rather stroppy manner by Ilan Goodman, drives the play through a morass of cultural arguments, rehashing’s of the past and stinging personal accusations.
Jonah, Liam’s brother, given life by Jos Slovick, whose calming presence and brilliant reactive storytelling are mesmerising to watch, tempers the two combative cousins. Thrown into this quagmire is poor, belittled Melody (Antonia Kinlay), girlfriend to Liam and prey to Daphna’s predatory opinions. It is her presence that ultimately brings the two cousins to a head, arguing over the fate of their Holocaust survivor grandfather’s jewel, a chai.
In this political climate, in which the Labour Party is dealing with claims of anti-Semitism within its ranks, the play feels especially relevant. One’s modern sensibilities are almost sucker punched as Daphna calls this a “safe” time to be a Jew. Her cultural arguments represent an anti-globalisation standpoint, desirous of remaining Jewish and holding onto heritage. Liam bats back with accusations of supremacy and racial purity and the audience is left reeling, forced to determine which is the lesser of two evils.
It is Jonah, however, the quieter and reserved brother (who spends the majority of the play trying to remain outside the arguments) who leaves the audience with the most poignant message. The final moments of the play and his revelation remind us of the man he grieves for, his grandfather, whose life was more important than any jewelled necklace. With grace and feeling, Slovick humanises his cousin and demonstrates the true weight of grief.
While Goodman’s Liam is whiny, a bit camp and a smidge too unlikeable, the simplicity of Slovick’s playing alongside the powerhouse that is Ailsa Joy carry the play to a fever pitch of theatrical awesomeness. Antonia Kinlay delivers a wonderfully hilarious and very brave rendition of a well-known opera tune, a moment of comic genius that rescues some overly British vowel sounds. Goodman, too, failed to hide his homeland in his speech, only noticeable for Ailsa Joy’s almost perfect American accent.
A simple but persuasive set design by Richard Kent with brilliant realistic lighting by Richard Howell give the play a “real life” feel. Additional use of the soundscape of New York City by Adrienne Quartly and perfectly modernised costumes by Martin de Cerjat allow the production to encompass the world right outside our own doors.
It’s Joshua Harmon’s writing that is undeniable, and when played by such talent as Ailsa Joy, one can’t help but want to indulge in being a little bit of a Bad Jew too.
RUNS UNTIL 7 May 2016