Knock Knock – Etcetera Theatre, London

Writer and  Director: Niv Petel
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Regardless of the era, thinking about the Home Front in any war automatically conjures up images of the WI making jam, defiant sing-songs in the local pub and endless lashings of “blitz spirit”, but the domestic reality is quite different, families suffer. Niv Petel’s new show Knock Knock transposes those ideas to modern-day Israel where military service is compulsory and each family has contained generations of soldiers.

tell-us-block_editedMerging straightforward action with mime and aspects of physical theatre, Knock Knock examines the growing shadow of war on one family. The story follows a single mother raising her son while working as a liaison officer for the Israeli army supporting families who’ve lost their sons to the wars. As her son grows up the little family’s happiness is increasingly disrupted by an imposing future – in a society where a knock at the door can only mean one thing.

Petel’s one-man show is an impressively constructed and insightful piece of drama, which, unlike many shows of its ilk, subverts expectation by looking at events from the perspective of a mother. The temptation would be to write a monologue-based piece focused on the son but, instead, Petel allows the drama to unfold slowly, focusing entirely on domestic concerns from being a working mother with a baby to choosing ice-creams on the beach, with only a hint of the military service to come.

As the years pass in the narrative the blot of military service begins to grow so from spotting a couple of soldiers on the beach, it expands to fill almost all the conversations the viewer overhears as the son takes a holiday before his military service and, later, calls home from across the border. All of this is presented as a one-sided duologue, so we never hear or see the son, only hear his thoughts and actions relayed through the character of the mother which emphasises the hardship for those left behind.

It is also an interesting decision for Petel to approach this as a gender-blind performance, not only writing a war play with a lead character who is female but also taking the role himself, in which he is entirely convincing. The creation of scenarios across the play’s dozen or so scenes is equally vivid whether the audience is asked to imagine a screaming baby, messy teenage bedroom or video message to Thailand. The creation of character is strong and Petel plays the mother as an excitable and enthusiastic parent, who borders slightly on grating busybody that only begins to get a little samey towards the end.

Sandwiched between these scenes are mimed representations of aspects of war. Many of these are quite abstract including a machine that appears to be making guns complete with sound effects provided by Petel and one, which opens the show, of a man sewing his own eye together which are interesting, although not always as clear as they could be. They do, however, make a valuable contrast with the domestic scenes giving an indication of the brutality of combat awaiting the son.

“We’re trapped in this loop for decades but we somehow manage to live… in spite of it,” the mother says and Knock Knock manages to be an engaging and emotional piece of political theatre that highlights the similarities in the experience of combat for families around the world. Petel’s interesting show is a far cry from our stereotypical idea of people on the Home Front – whatever mask they wear in public, their lives are full of fear for their loved ones and anticipation of the danger still to come.

Runs until 6 November 2016 | Image: Chris Gardner

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