A translucent box-like structure dominates the performance space for One Jewish Boy, which should, technically, be called One Jewish Boy and His Significant Other, given that there are two of them on stage, Jesse (Robert Neumark-Jones) and Alex (Asha Reid). I note with interest that the inclusion of this play in the current season at the Old Red Lion Theatre has itself precipitated some anti-Semitic remarks, though, on the other hand, I wonder how many of the said comments were made by the so-called online ‘trolls’ who have nothing better to do than provoke and attempt to offend.
The box appears to be a metaphor for the walls that Jesse has put up, not entirely of his own accord, as personal defences against what he sees (with some justification) as a pernicious and continuous tide of prejudice that many across society at large hold against people like him. While he is of a Jewish background, he disagrees with Israeli politicians on various issues. But he feels as though he is made to feel personally responsible for what is going on in the Middle East. Scenes that take place outside the box, likewise, form a metaphor for the kind of thinking that stretches beyond the usual day-to-day conversations that take place between any given couple. Even if this means the play itself begins to feel less realistic.
The play is one of many that enjoys flitting about over a number of years, and not in chronological order. Thankfully, in this case, the plotline is not made unnecessarily complicated as a result. It helps, perhaps, that there are only two on-stage characters, and while the narrative shifts – not always subtly – between the couple’s relationship and the wider issues they face, both together and as individuals, it remains intriguing to the end. (Or, rather, the beginning – the show ends, slightly bizarrely, at the start of their relationship.)
Neither character is particularly likeable. He rants too much, and she doesn’t make much of an effort to try to understand his viewpoints. Increasingly dismissive of one another, the play unfortunately starts to feel as though the audience is watching a playground argument in which neither party wins and both could be said to be as puerile as the other. But then one realises the non-chronological nature of the show, and what the audience is seeing in some later scenes is really younger, less mature versions of the pair. There is some sympathy elicited for Jesse, inasmuch as he is unable, and/or perhaps unwilling, to rise above the prejudice and discrimination he experiences and defiantly live his life regardless of what ‘they’ (whoever ‘they’ are) are saying. Sympathy for Alex seems to come more naturally, perhaps because she bears the brunt of Jesse’s frustrations, and later carries a child.
At least this isn’t a predictable ‘triumph over adversity’ story. Elements of the dialogue are a little tedious, as Jesse makes more or less the same points but expressed in different ways. Ultimately, this demonstrates how extensive his fears and discontents have become, permeating every facet of his life. Going through the script on the Tube home, I noticed some dialogue had been taken out of this production, relating to the ongoing fallouts from a certain referendum (you know the one).
Good move, I thought: it would have detracted from the other issues the play raises, present in contemporary society irrespective of ‘in’ or ‘out’.
A personal play, rather than a political one, there’s much food for thought in this multi-layered and robust production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Jesse is paranoid and he’s frightened and it’s messing up his relationship, his job, his daughter and his life, but Jesse has every reason to be frightened. From his next door neighbour and the micro-aggressions around why she would vote for Corbyn but could never support Blair, to the dinner party where his slightly left of him liberal mates can’t quite grasp the difference between Likkudy foreign policy and the position of diaspora Jews. From his own wife and an argument about a hypothetical circumcision, to a vicious attack in the park that brought them together… Jesse is feeling the sting of rising prejudice in every part of his life.
Not with a 9-month-old daughter to protect. ONE JEWISH BOY explores key moments over a four-year relationship between a nice, Jewish boy from North London and the nice, not-so-Jewish woman he falls for. With the shadow of hatred festering at its core, the play is a bittersweet comedy fuelled by anti-Semitism. Told out of chronology, it focusses on those filthy, ugly words that were kicked into Jesse – asking if the fear of hatred, could be even worse than hate itself…
Jesse – Robert Neumark-Jones
Alex – Asha Reid
Director – Sarah Meadows
Producer – Ed Littlewood
Associate Producer – Liv Edmunds
Designer – Georgia De Grey
Lighting Designer – Lucy Adams
Composer – Benedict Taylor
Stage Manager – Heather Christie
Assistant Director – Katerina Constantinidou
One Jewish Boy
by Stephen Laughton
A messed up bittersweet tale of inherited trauma, the miracle of Chanukah, raging anti-semitism, the end of youth and staying in love…