The two spontaneous rounds of applause mid-show and the standing ovation received by Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, currently playing at St James Theatre, says it all. This outstandingly honest look at an emerging generation of an American Jewish family is fraught with tension, raucous with comedy and thoroughly affecting. The story revolves around the converging of three cousins for their grandfather’s funeral. Oh, and the non-Jewish girlfriend of Liam, the eldest. They are all meant to be sleeping in the same room and the situation is the perfect backdrop for hilarious comedy interspersed with moments of utter reality.
The cast of four is superbly well balanced. Daphna, played by Jenna Augen, is the dynamic female pre-graduate. Committed to rediscovering and foregrounding her religion she wants to up-sticks and move to Israel and her fictitious boyfriend. She is fiercely defensive of her standing and has her sights set on a controversial heirloom. Played to perfection Daphna is a true anti-hero, acerbic and deliberately disruptive. Jonah is the put-upon younger brother of Liam. Immediately your empathy is with him as he gets embroiled in the feud between Daphna and Liam.
oe Coen tackles this quieter but emotionally provocative role with ease. His Jonah is the younger child, laid back and overlooked but always feeling it more than anyone else. His final devastating revelation brought me to tears. And Liam, the forward looking enterprising older brother who wants to follow his heart and look forward to the future, putting divisive and damaging traditions behind him. Ilan Goodman brings Liam’s pent up frustration and overriding love for Melody dramatically to life. His are the glory moments of this play. And Melody, the outsider, who as Liam’s girlfriend gets utterly lambasted by Daphna; sweet and cheery and forever putting her foot in it, she provides a gorgeous foil for Daphna’s impassioned and bitter outrages. Gina Bramhill is excellent, making the audience feel every inch of her love for Liam, her innocence and her discomfort in confrontations with Daphna. And when enough of this dysfunctional family is enough, her reaction is utterly warranted.
This play brings emotions of every colour to the surface alongside issues of financial affluence, the role of tradition, gender issues and what the loss of a beloved family member can do to the unit as a whole. The competence of the actors and the specificity of the wonderfully placed words land each feeling like a punch to the stomach; in one instance we are rolling around in a moment of shared familial reminiscence, then we are caught up in the romance of Liam and Melody, then reminded of the holocaust atrocities. In this regard Bad Jews strikes exactly the right tone; funny in all the right places and mildly irreverent it is scattered throughout with some Jewish-specific humour completely accessible to audiences. The main theme is family, and that is a drama everyone has had to deal with. Self-effacing in parts it is clever, humble and witty and doesn’t rely on cheap gags. If you are able to grab a ticket then be sure not to miss this American treasure while it’s in London. It is bound to be the Off-West End play everyone is talking about this month.
Review by Annemarie Hiscott
Danny Moar and Simon Friend for Theatre Royal Bath and St. James Theatre Productions present Bad Jews By Joshua Harmon
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes without an interval
15 January – 28 February 2015
St James Theatre, London
The UK premiere of this production of Bad Jews was a sell out at the Ustinov Studio, Bath earlier this year, where it earned huge critical acclaim.
A beloved grandfather has died and a treasured family heirloom with religious significance is up for grabs. But who is most deserving of it? Bossy, overbearing, fanatically religious Daphna? Her wealthy cousin Liam who’s just returned from skiing with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody? Or Jonah, his brother, who would prefer not to get involved in the fight? A cramped Manhattan apartment becomes the setting for a viciously hilarious quarrel about family, faith and legacy as the contenders set at each other’s throats on the night after the funeral.
Cast includes: Jenna Augen (winner UK Theatre Award Best Supporting Performance), Gina Bramhill, Joe Coen and Ilan Goodman.
Directed by Michael Longhurst
Designed by Richard Kent
Lighting by Richard Howell
Sound by Adrienne Quartly
Thursday 22nd January 2015