The Rubber Merchants – Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Christine Stanton

Writer: Hanoch Levin

Director: Asya Sosis

Yohanan, Bella and Shmuel have a chance meeting inside Bella’s pharmacy, stumbling upon each other without realising that they would have a huge impact on each others lives from there on out. Shmuel has been gifted a lifetime supply of condoms from his late father and is eager to make a quick buck and rid himself of the stock. His competition, Bella, owns the pharmacy, and the lifetime of each of them competing to win single, ineligible bachelor Yohanan’s subsequent condom purchases begins.

Described as an absurdist and comedic tragi-farce, there is unfortunately not much comedy and just a tragic, lengthy production. The irony is that the whole ethos behind the show is to encourage people not to play it safe but each predictable punchline stays firmly within the confines of safety without the creativity of thinking outside of the box.

While it would be easy to assume this play is sponsored by Durex, it’s actually Gamayun Theatre that has bought this narrative back to life. Written 50 years ago by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, it quite honestly should have stayed in the past. The persistent begging for sex, the strange monologues on treating sex as a monetary commodity and the insinuation that the single female is there to be traded as part of an exchange are plot points that shouldn’t have progressed past the ‘Me Too’ movement.

The random outbursts of musical interludes in between scenes are reminiscent of being stuck at a karaoke bar at last call, with a drunken punter warbling lyrics to an uninterested audience. But instead of them belting out some classic Whitney; it’s a song about the life of a condom instead.

The second act begins 20 years in the future – Yohanan, Bella and Shmuel are all still single, reminiscing about the times that have passed and the love that missed them all. While it begins with promise it slowly reverts to the same cyclical monotony that plagued the first act. Each scene is a repeat of before – just with added walking sticks and grey-sprayed hair. The endless repetition becomes tiresome quickly and there is little to redeem the play as a whole. The farcical rebuttals and the elaborated mannerisms would have worked better in a shorter, snappier play but there isn’t enough weight behind the storyline to pad out almost 3 hours.

Joseph Emms, playing Shmuel, is the closest thing to redeemable within the performance. His character is like an Apprentice reject from the 80s, slick sales patter and sleazy mannerisms. Emms’ larger-than-life persona carries the character well, with most of the comedic moments throughout the performance being his breaks of the fourth wall, addressing the audience with wit and humour, moments that would have been fantastic scattered more throughout the show.

Overtly sexual Bella (Hadas Kershaw) and pathetic singleton Yohanan (Tom Dayton) spend most of the performance bickering and bartering for a marriage deal. Kershaw and Dayton are given little room to step outside of their repetitive lines but do the best they can to bring some energy to the piece. Much like the strange polystyrene packing peanuts that engulf the stage to the point of absurdity, the direction from Asya Sosis feels lost and confused. Their revitalisation of an old play just seems to be stuck in the middle of a modern take and a mismatched amalgamation of styles from the past.

It’s a shame that there isn’t much to captivate the audience throughout the show. The most impressive part of it all is that they managed to make a play about competing condom salesmen last for 150 minutes. Like a bad fever dream, it’s bizarre and discombobulating, making you wonder what could be done to salvage the long, arduous performance.

Runs until 29 January 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Bad fever dream

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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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