DramaLondonReview

Second Temple – Bitesize Festival, Riverside Studios, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Sophie Stemmons

Director: Mimi Pattinson

Sophie Stemmons’ comedy Second Temple is a lively and immensely watchable play, currently being performed as part of the Bitesize festival at Riverside Studios. It’s interesting to read in the programme that it began as a rehearsed reading in Cambridge, where it was subsequently performed. You get the sense that the play itself is still evolving, but it’s certainly got bags of potential.

It’s all about a get-together of three generations of a dysfunctional Jewish family. It’s Hanukkah and it’s also the night before the funeral of the grandfather. What could possibly go wrong? The newly widowed Leah still hankers after returning to Iraq, her home of decades before. Middle-aged Sarah (Rachel Gaffin), her daughter, resents all the help she’s expected to give her, not to mention being constantly accused of nicking her Monet.

Her kindly if ineffectual brother David (Paul Croft) arrives with his wonderfully kookie daughter, Bathseba (Em Lawrence), all auras and Tarot cards, not to mention a rebrand as DJ Jezebel. All Rachel wants is for her beloved wastrel son Josh (Jack Medlin) to come home. But the mother-daughter relationship between Sarah and Rachel (Izzie Harding-Perrott) is another matter. It’s Rachel we find ourselves sympathising with, coping with the breakup of her girlfriend and dealing with a mother who still refuses to acknowledge she’s a vegetarian.

The dialogue is fast and witty and the device of waiting to hear who’s at the door – will it be Josh? Will it be the take-away? – works well. In the programme, Stemmons writes movingly about her own grandmother, forced to leave her home in Iraq in the 1940s. Through the character of Leah, she suggests something of the once vibrant Jewish community of Baghdad and indeed before the play starts, we walk into an atmospheric set where Middle Eastern music plays and a table is laid for Hanukkah. Leah herself, played with dignity by Shirel Stemmons, is perhaps too bright-eyed, too intelligent to convince us she’s an older woman lost in her memories of the past. In fact, this part of the play never quite works. It needs to be more fully developed – or perhaps deserves a play of its own.

All the actors are engaging and at its best, the dialogue fizzes with fun, while being shot through with a dark bitterness. But there’s a part towards the end when the pace slows and we sense the playwright trying hard to keep all the balls in the air.Second Temple works best when its focus is the interaction of the characters rather than the plot itself.

Runs until 18 February 2024

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Bags of Potential

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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