Writer: James Phillips
Director: Joe Harmston
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
For lovers of spy drama, the early years of the Cold War are among the most exciting of the twentieth-century. While Ian Fleming and Graham Greene were creating the templates for espionage fiction and its heroes, in reality all eyes were turning East with the slow unveiling of the Cambridge Five and similar agents who had sold secrets to Russia on both sides of the Atlantic. No secret was bigger, or more important, than the Manhattan Project, the creation of the nuclear bomb and the names of those who betrayed it live on.
James Phillips 2006 play The Rubenstein Kiss is receiving its first London revival at Southwark Playhouse, the story of a now infamous couple – Jakob and Esther – who were sent to the Electric Chair in 1953 for selling the secrets of the bomb to the Soviets, along with Esther’s brother David Girshfeld who was released. Their story is taken-up years later by their son Matthew and niece Anna, determined to prove that the American Government executed an innocent couple.
The decision to revise this talky and turgid drama is a confusing one, and while Director Joe Harmston talks in the programme notes about dogmatic ideology and our currently divided nation, there’s little in Phillips’ play that really gets to the heart of what the Rubenstein’s believed and why they acted as they did. Despite a run time of two hours and forty-five minutes (far longer than the advertised 140 minutes), character insight and development is secondary to endless exposition and superfluous context in Phillips’ tell rather than show approach.
The first part is full of leaden domestic scenes in which the Rubensteins and the Girshfelds get through the war and enlarge their family, interspersed with a developing romance between the unknowing cousins in the 1970s – it’s full of facts but no real sense of the personalities Phillips recreates. It’s rare to say this but the entire first act of The Rubenstein Kiss just doesn’t need to exist, and if you arrived at the interval to watch the final 70-minutes of this production, you would still understand the relationships and backstory well enough to enjoy the tighter plotting of Act Two.
With the introduction of Stephen Billington’s engaging and very human FBI Agent Paul Cranmer, the show receives some much-needed pep as he interrogates the now imprisoned Rubensteins in scenes more redolent of classic spy drama. Events move quicker and Harmston balances the swift changes between the prison and Matthew’s search for truth which creates some tension. However, as talk turns to Jakob fighting for an “idea,” their refusal to save themselves and protestations of innocence, it becomes unclear what conclusion the audience is meant to come to on their guilt or its ramifications beyond the immediate family.
Ruby Bentall as Esther and Henry Proffit as Jakob are a convincing couple, fanatically in love with each other and whatever cause it is they are dying for. The text offers them next to nothing in terms of character development but Bentall, in particular, reveals a nervy determination in prison that plays well against the singing housewife of Act One. Sean Rigby finds some depth to David’s frustration in Act Two as he tries to live with the consequences of his choices, while of the younger lovers Dario Coates develops Matthew’s fighting spirit while Katie Eldred makes a fine professional debut as Anna.
The Rubenstein Kiss is a play about dying for a cause and honouring the legacy that has gone before, but it’s a shame this results in some howling dialogue including “every red spy we’ve caught has squealed” and the incredibly earnest “we go on living for a reason… it is our thing to do.” If we felt more for the characters and understood their motivation, or if the production had taken a firm position of the Rubensteins’ innocence then it would have given the show more drive. As it is it’s neither an exciting Cold War spy-thriller or a story of love and sacrifice, it is, in fact, just a very long night.
Until: 13 April 2019 | Image: Scott Rylander