The Arab-Israeli Cookbook

Robin Soans
Tricycle Theatre
(2005)

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The Arab-Israeli Cookbook is Verbatim Theatre at its very best. This use of the carefully edited words of real people at the sharp end of life had seemed an incredibly powerful and touching piece of theatre at the Gate last year. Now, with this play and Talking to Terrorists which opened at the Royal Court less than a week earlier, Robin Soans has perfectly caught the mood of a besieged and very scared city that is not on the other side of the world.

Sometimes context can be all and, in the light of the bombings in London only four days before its opening, some moments in this play are almost unbearably chilling, particularly for those caught up in events.

This transfer has to varying degrees been recast, restaged and rewritten. It still remains an outstanding play although the need to stage it more traditionally rather than in traverse as it was at the Gate, with the audience at either end, has taken away some of the intimacy. You no longer feel as if you are sitting in somebody's kitchen listening to them chattering away and tasting their cooking.

The stories that are told however retain all of their ability to shock and amuse, whether delivered by Jews, Arab Christians or hardline Palestinians. It doesn't take long to realise that the terrorist outrages that rocked London last week have been a pretty normal occurrence in Israel at any time since the Intifada started and indeed pretty much in the sixty years since that country earned its independence.

The pacing by Soans and his co-directors, Tim Roseman and Rima Brihi, works well, as initially an odd assortment of Israelis tell tales of their lives, always in the context of some kind of cookery. The Israeli equivalents to Nigella and Jamie share their recipes and their lives, not to mention a good few laughs.

Without our realising it, the pace begins to hot up and politics intervene as they inevitably must in a divided country. We realise that while rich Rena, played by Amanda Boxer, has all of life's luxuries, Simon Trinder's super-student Fadi has only his intelligence and his sense of humour to keep him going.

Time and again, we see affluent Jews but only very rarely are their Arab counterparts able to make money in a country where unemployment is rife and social security does not exist.

The most chilling moments depict characters from either side of the checkpoints. Abigail Thaw is wonderful as Fattiyah, a camp-dwelling mother who talks of the loss of two young sons, one a "martyr", the other exiled and out of reach.

Nicolas Woodeson gets close to matching her as Ya'akov, a driver on the notorious 25 bus route. His story of a lucky escape as a bus exploded silenced the theatre at the Gate and had an even more drastic effect on this occasion.

The comic delights were perhaps best highlighted by the double act of Daniel Pirrie and Simon Trinder playing a gay couple who cooked up the night's most aromatic meal, a Thai stir fry.

There are two contrasting reactions that Londoners might distil from the words of Israeli counterparts, of whatever hue, defiance and prayer.

Like the many and varied dishes that define it, there is far more to the Arab-Israeli Cookbook than can be conveyed in a short review. Once again, it is most strongly recommended as a funny, moving and very thoughtful piece of political theatre.

Running until 6th August

Reviewer: Philip Fisher