Exploring both the Jewish and Christian faiths, Candlesticks in some ways puts forward some good arguments for systems of belief that exist entirely outside what is commonly deemed to be organised religion, such as atheism or humanism. It is rather contrived, in that Louise (Mary Tillett) is culturally Jewish but doesn’t exactly have an unshakeable belief in the existence of God, while her daughter Jenny (Sophie McMahon) has had some kind of Damascene conversion to Christianity.
Louise’s neighbour and decades-long friend, Julia (Kathryn Worth) does not practice religion, but as her son Ian (James Duddy) was warmly welcomed next door from an early age, he expresses a desire in adulthood to convert to the Jewish faith, and by the end of the play has gone as far as taking regular lessons from a rabbi and wearing a kippah, the cap traditionally worn by Jewish men in accordance with religious teachings. Rabbinical opinions vary as to whether it is strictly necessary to wear one at all times, but that’s a conversation outside the scope of the play’s narrative.
The said scope is, however, very broad, with Jenny regularly coming up with prayers for all sorts of circumstances. The dialogue isn’t, however, as deep as it comes across at face value, considering some rather intricately complicated matters but not always taking them to their logical conclusions. Louise, for instance, is highly sensitive, with some justification, to microaggressions that are, whether people who commit them even realise it or not, effectively displays of anti-Semitism. When Julia continues to liaise with someone, albeit for professional reasons, that doesn’t believe Israel should be a sovereign country, Louise feels so strongly about it, but for some reason, it isn’t enough to break ties with Julia, even on a temporary basis, and even when Julia herself says things Louise finds wholly objectionable.
Jenny, meanwhile, is the sort of evangelical Christian who thinks everything they do is a response to instructions from Heaven. Jenny’s deity (or perhaps it’s a voice in her head) doesn’t, notably, tell her to enter paid employment, or if He did, she’s disobeyed, and she has the eternal conscious torment of the damned to look forward to. She also thinks she can be a Christian and a Jew, which came across to me as wanting to have her hot cross bun and eat it (does she think Christ is the Messiah or not?). No wonder there are arguments between the characters.
The story overall is evidently meticulously researched, and very economical. Lots of other characters are referred to but don’t actually appear, and yet the show commendably doesn’t cause confusion with regards to, for instance, Louise’s other children, or mutual friends of Jenny and Ian. Through the younger characters’ conversions, there’s some insight into what it is about traditional belief systems that continue to inspire people even in supposedly more enlightened times. The show won’t convert anyone in the audience who doesn’t already have a faith – if anything, it just might steer people away from upholding rituals and observances that aren’t, ultimately, worth the strife for family and friends.
It ends rather abruptly, however, with the youngsters still not officially religious adherents, in the sense that Jenny, as far as I could tell, isn’t a member of a church, and Ian is still some way off from completing the requirements for conversion to Judaism. Parts of this unwieldy story are more comical than perhaps was intended, and I’m still not sure if the intention was to spread awareness of Judaism in modern society, or to subtly warn of the dangers of organised religion. Perhaps it is both.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Controversial, topical, challenging, sometimes comical, always thought-provoking.
Two households have been neighbours for years; the mothers – lifelong friends with frequently sparky disagreements; their children – childhood sweethearts.
But the Jewish daughter makes an astonishing announcement on the eve of Passover, while the gentile son next door sets out on his own voyage of discovery. How can their mothers cope (or not) with children who become so passionately committed to new beliefs that they may be lost to each other and to their families?
And the fifth character in this play? A pair of candlesticks.
By Deborah Freeman
27th September – 15th October 2022