Tikkun Olam – Original Theatre/Riverside Studios

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: Michael Boyd

Writer: Teunkie van der Sluijs

Taking the story of a real-life Holocaust Memorial campaign, director Teunkie van der Sluijs’ first play, Tikkun Olam, starts with a single question. What is a nation other than the stories it tells itself?

Filmed at Riverside Studios as a rehearsed reading, the actors appear on stage, scripts in hand. As a man and a woman begin talking – to each other, over each other – we piece together their conversation. Dan (played by Luke Thompson) is a political researcher, working for MP Steve Alexander (Jake Fairbrother). The woman, Leah (Debbie Korley), has been contacted by Dan because her online presence, chiefly on Twitter, garners attention. Her degree of influence and her background – feminist, Black, Jewish – has made her an important voice on social media. Alexander is fronting a proposal to build a Holocaust Memorial in the borough of Westminster.

Local residents, including Mary (Diana Quick) are against the installation. The scale of the Memorial is too big, they say. Their park, their green space, will be greatly reduced. There will be an inquiry, and Dan is eager to recruit Leah as a consultant. Their initial meeting does not start well: he assumes she has arrived to attend a meeting on knife-crime.

The four-hander is developed by Van Der Sluijs into an ambitious, intersectional discussion on history, politics and trauma. Leah doubting Steve Alexander’s motives is well placed when we discover he considers ‘New Politics’ the practice of “trading allyships”. This project for Alexander is purely quid pro quo. If the Holocaust Memorial gets built, he is one step closer to securing a memorial, the first in the UK, marking the human cost of the transatlantic slave trade.

Van Der Sluijs’ script – crammed with ideology – dazzles: the complex multiplicity of ethnicity, class and race shifts its focus as different actors take to the stage. Mary and Leah meet on a park bench, and their gentle conversation builds into a ferocious exchange as they realise they are, in every sense, living in different worlds. As Leah’s relationship with Dan deepens, his experience as a white, straight, middle-class man is exposed. For him, “race can be picked up and dropped” at will. Every aspect considered from every angle – political, cultural, personal – the effect is kaleidoscopic.

The performances across the production are superb: Jake Fairbrother’s MP on the rise is warily familiar. Debbie Korley creates a politically astute but emotionally resonant Leah. We see the dichotomies and contradictions. She is vocal online, but has to maintain anonymity to avoid a torrent of abuse.

Taken from the Jewish term for ‘repairing and improving the world’, Tikkun Olam looks at how Britain has mythologised itself; inconvenient truths excised from history. Its early rejection of Jewish refugees in 1939 is forgotten; we instead pride ourselves on the acceptance of orphaned Jewish children after the war. We only see the shiny side of the coin, and Tikkun Olam suggests that in looking at how we create narratives for ourselves, a more honest reckoning is not only required, it’s long overdue.

Available here until July 2023

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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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