Writer: Stephen Laughton
Director: Sarah Meadows
Jesse and Alex are a normal couple. They met as little more than kids in an Ibiza nightclub, started going out when they returned to London, gave up their drugs, got married, and had a kid.
But when we first meet them in Stephen Laughton’s One Jewish Boy, they are on the brink of divorce, the tensions that have always existed between them bringing their relationship to breaking point.
How have they come to this? Laughton explores the couple’s relationship through a series of non-linear scenes, each timeframe helpfully exposited by having the year projected onto the back wall of Georgia de Grey’s sparsely brutalist set design.
But even without those visual clues, each stage of the characters’ lives is acutely marked out by the performances of Robert Neumark-Jones as Jesse and Asha Reid’s Alex, both reprising the roles they originated in the play’s debut at the Old Red Lion in 2018.
At the heart of their troubles is Jesse’s ongoing anxieties about the rise of antisemitism, sparked by an assault in 2013. Laughton captures well how such violence, inflicted onto an individual as a proxy for a section of the populace, can damage the psyche. Neumark-Jones’s intensely likeable portrayal delivers the theme of how, in the shadow of such violent tendencies, low-level bigotry (such as comments from Jesse’s boss at the couple’s wedding) can be more, not less, hurtful.
Neumark-Jones is matched by Reid as Alex, her path from drugged-up house music DJ to powerful PR executive always in tension with Jesse’s laid back, if anxious, state. Reid is effective at countering what she sometimes sees as Jesse’s obsession with antisemitism – as a mixed race woman who is often mistaken for white, she is no stranger to racist and sexist attitudes herself.
Together, the pair make for an engaging double act on stage, even as their characters’ lives deteriorate. As Jesse shifts from being a “rich lad from North London” who doesn’t feel especially Jewish to a post-attack man who takes his faith seriously enough that he insists the couple’s son must be circumcised despite his wife’s objections, Laughton charts the impact of fear, and how that fear can insidiously wither the love around it.
A scene set in the 2019 General Election is, perhaps, a little too on-the-nose for a play which otherwise thrives on nuance and implication. But even with that blip, One Jewish Boy is a funny, tender and moving portrayal of the darker side of modern Britain.
Continues until 4 April 2020