Writer: Joshua Harman
Director: Michael Longhurst
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
Bad Jews premiered in New York in 2012, before transferring to Theatre Royal Bath in 2014 and then to the West End. It has since enjoyed runs at three London theatres and is currently touring the UK. The show hit headlines when complaints led to its posters being banned on the London Underground, but this is, in fact, a superb and sharply-written comedy drama, featuring strong direction from Michael Longhurst and outstanding performances from its four actors.
The play is set in downtown New York where a wealthy Jewish family has just returned from the funeral of its beloved patriarch, a Holocaust survivor. Two cousins, the easy-going Jonah (Jos Slovick) and the fiercely religious Daphna (Ailsa Joy), await the arrival of the third cousin, the self-proclaimed atheist Liam (Ilan Goodman), who missed the funeral due to a skiing trip. When Liam arrives with his blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Christian girlfriend, the airheaded Melody (Antonia Kinlay), hackles are raised and sparks fly. When Liam attempts to propose to Melody with a treasured family heirloom, the play calls the very relevance of Judaism in the 21st century into question.
This is both a darkly comic and deeply moving play and Joshua Harmon’s writing is wild, far-reaching and incredibly funny. He tackles head-on what it means to be religious in a secular society, and demonstrates the difficulty in preserving specific cultures and values in an era of consumerism and globalisation. It is a superbly constructed piece of theatre that succeeds, despite its provocative title, by never seeking to shock.
The performances are universally outstanding. For Ilan Goodman and Ailsa Joy as the warring, polar-opposite cousins, the play is a vocal marathon, and the skill and energy of these two actors are extremely impressive. Particular highlights are Liam’s increasingly anti-Semitic rant against Daphna’s religious fanaticism, and Daphna’s own plea to keep their heritage alive in a well-handled discussion of the Holocaust. Jos Slovick as Jonah displays excellent comic timing and copes well with the darker turn the play takes towards its close. Antonia Kinlay is faced with the most underwritten of the four roles as the ditsy, tone-deaf Melody, but she too displays strong comedic skills and brings personality to what is in danger of becoming a stock ‘girlfriend’ role.
The actors are terrifically directed by Michael Longhurst, who pushes the comedy to its limits while never neglecting the sobering, probing questions at the heart of the play. Richard Kent’s set design and Richard Howell’s lighting effectively evoke a sleek New York apartment, while emphasising the claustrophobia that ultimately sparks Liam’s mental disintegration.
Bad Jews is a witty, intelligent and observant play which by zooming in on the experiences of one Jewish family, manages to reveal broader truths about the state of religion in the 21st century. Exceptional direction from Michael Longhurst allows this production to mine Harmon’s excellent script for every ounce of detail, and the magnificent performances from the four actors makethis a wildly funny, thought-provoking production.
Runs until 16 April 2016 | Image:Nobby Clark