Review: Bad Jews, at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
There’s nothing quite like the death of a family member and a treasured family heirloom, to turn a once harmonious family into a squabbling bunch of you-know-whats. You’re smiling to yourself now, aren’t you, recalling the time cousin Sally went around writing her name on the underside of the valuables lining the shelves at wealthy Great Aunt Gertie’s house.
If it wasn’t so cringey, it would be funny. And in the hands of playwright Joshua Harmon, a similar-ish storyline is more than funny. It’s laugh-out-loud, snort-into-your-tea hilarious. If you want a night out that involves dark humour, sharp wit and a thought-provoking story, then Bad Jews is for you. It’s on at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford until Saturday.
The story is set just after the funeral of a Jewish patriarch, Poppy, in the Manhattan flat of his grandson Jonah. Also there is Jonah’s cousin Daphna, who is overbearing, a bit bossy, and fervently religious – and yet for me, also strangely likeable. They’re waiting for Jonah’s brother Liam, who missed the funeral because he was skiing in Aspen with his girlfriend Melody, a blue-eyed and sweet-as-can-be blonde from Delaware.
The play pitches along at breakneck speed, centred mostly around the mutually contemptuous relationship between Daphna (the brilliant Ailsa Joy) and Liam (equally as brilliant Ilan Goodman). The two cousins are arguing over Poppy’s ‘Chai’, a gold medallion engraved with the Hebrew word for life, which was given to him by his own father in the concentration camps during the war. Daphna believes her devout religious beliefs should make it hers, while Liam has plans to propose to Melody (Antonia Kinlay) using the medallion as a token of his love.
The pair fight a ferocious war of words with sublime articulation. There’s sneering, jeering, quite a lot of venom, and, it has to be said, a fair amount of swearing. The F-word gets bandied around with some regularity, and the C-word is thrown in a couple of times too, just for good measure. I’m not easily offended by these things, and for me, it made the play all the more funny.
The placid Jonah and sweet-natured Melody, at times, try to calm the combative cousins. Melody, who studied opera, sings a brilliant but excruciating version of Gershwin’s Summertime. (It takes some skill to sing that badly.) Jos Slovick as Jonah is wonderful at skulking around the flat, doing his best to keep out of the arguments, with an expression that wavers between a look of horror at what’s being said, and a clear desire for it to stop.
Harmon is terrifically clever at balancing the sharp wit with questions of identity, religion and the Holocaust. And the absence of an interval means the tension remains unbroken throughout. That this cast of only four maintains it steadily for the full 105 minutes of the play is darned impressive.
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Millbrook, Guildford, GU1 3UX. Tel: 01483 44 00 00. Tickets: £23-£34.50. yvonne-arnaud.co.uk