Two Thousand Years
It is over a decade since Mike Leigh last had a new play performed in London and in that period, he has developed a reputation as one of the finest film-makers around. The appearance of Two Thousand Years must therefore be regarded as a very special occasion
Leigh also ensured that the drama built up nicely in advance of the opening. He left the christening (hardly the right word) of his new baby until the last week and finalising the script even later, judging by the fact that nobody was certain of the running time even on the day before opening.
The strengths and weaknesses of this new offering derive primarily from the playwright's collaborative creative style. It is hardly surprising when the team create a play from their own experiences that it will seem absolutely true-to-life. A possible problem is that not everybody would choose to spend two-and-a-half hours in the Cricklewood living room of an archetypal neurotic Jewish dentist and his mad family, however good the jokes he tells (and many are good).
The flexibility offered by a largely unscripted play does allow it to include absolutely contemporary references, not only to the London bombings of two months before but also events in New Orleans little more than a week ago.
Alan Corduner and Caroline Gruber play Danny the dentist and his wife, Rachel. They are secular bacon-loving, North London Jews enjoying relative affluence in their early fifties. Their only concerns revolve around a series of unhappy family members.
Ben Caplan plays son Josh, a mathematical genius who can't come to terms with life and, to the utter disbelief and shock of his family, becomes a frumer (gets religion). If he had announced that he was gay, his family could not have taken it any worse.
The scene in which his mother discovers him wearing skull cap and phylacteries is extremely funny because the audience is gulled into the standard modern thinking that any young man tying something on his arm must be about to inject an illegal substance.
The closest that we get to a normal person with their head screwed on properly is the family's daughter Tammy, played convincingly by Alexis Zegerman. She injects political debate about the state of Israel by inviting her hunky new boyfriend, Nitzan Sharron, to visit. This is the equivalent to lighting the blue touch paper but it only really hits the explosives when the amazingly self-centred Mash, played with manic intensity by Samantha Spiro, appears after an 11 year absence.
Her skill and Leigh's is to pick up and recommence every argument that she has ever had with the family, as if she has just returned from a weekend away rather than over a decade.
The finest creation of all though is grandad Dave: an irascible dyed in the wool socialist, he cannot resist winding up anybody within reach, even if it almost kills them as a result of the emphysema that he lovingly nurtures with tobacco. John Burgess gives a really fine performance in this part and his every appearance livens the evening.
It has taken a long time for Mike Leigh to return to his roots and many non-Jewish audience members may be rather baffled by the strange rituals and sprinkling of Yiddish and Hebrew words. They will recognise the universality of the individual characters that make up this family and could easily identify with the humour and embarrassment that are so much a part of family life.
Two Thousand Years could probably benefit from a little pruning but it is often funny and provides a real insight into the Anglo-Jewish perspective on politics and religion today. Mike Leigh's talent has always been to entertain the world by showing ordinary people in stressful situations and it is good to see him doing so once again in a live environment.
Peter Lathan reviewed this production on tour at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Reviewer: Philip Fisher