Beau Jest

James Sherman
Hackney Empire
(2008)

Prpduction photo

Three acts, two intervals and a single set isn't exactly what we're used to these days, though it used to be the pattern, and there is a certain sense of déjà vu about this American play now getting its British premiere. Surely I've come across the centre plot idea before: a girl inventing a boy friend to please her parents and then getting someone to act to act it out. New or not, it's a plot whose twists you can guess at long before they happens, though that doesn't stop it from being a load of laughs.

This is an American comedy, set in Chicago in the late 1980s and, though this is its first British showing, that's where and when it was first seen, the most successful play in the Victory Gardens theatre's history, followed by a transfer to New York where it ran for two and a half years Off-Broadway. It's had plenty of revivals across the States, was turned into a musical in 2003 and a film version directed by the playwright was released this year, so as you might guess it is an easy going, commercial piece that doesn't make any great demands on its audience or have anything particularly profound to tell them.

Oh, did I mention? It's a Jewish family. Poppa Goldman, Abe (Jack Chissick), has a chain of dry-cleaning stores and, according to school-teacher daughter Sarah (Lara Pulver), he treats business like religion and religion like business. Son Joel (Alexander Giles) is a psychiatrist and momma Miriam, well she's a Jewish Momma and Sue Kelvin plays her to the hilt, always in charge and dressed to kill. The trouble is Sarah got herself a gentile boyfriend (Alex Hardy), which didn't go down well with poppa and momma. So she told them she's dropped him, though she hasn't. Now, pestered by momma's attempts at matchmaking she tries to put them off the scent with a guy hired from an escort agency that usually caters for older ladies who want a male arm to lean on when going to the theatre or out to dinner.

Sarah asks for a Jewish boy and gets Bob Schneider, an out of work actor who suddenly discovers that, rather than taking her out for a meal, he has to play her new beau at a dinner for Abe's birthday. Then, despite the sound of his Polish name, it turns out he's not Jewish. Sarah panics and only half briefs him - like not telling him he's a doctor and other stuff she's invented and told her parents. In a hilarious scene, skating on thin ice as he improvises his new persona, he draws on snatches of theatrical experience in Jewish shows to save his non-kosher bacon.

Momma and Poppa love him. So much that a second hiring is needed, this time for a Passover Seder. Rayner notches up his performance for this second act dinner but an attempt to draw humour from Abe's arbitrary way of handling the ceremony slows down the pace and blunts the jokes. The actors don't seem secure in this rerun and poppa even loses his accent! What the cast previously inhabit as characters begin to become clichés. Some careful cuts here might be helpful to keep it tune with Susie McKenna's bubbling production.

The third act takes romance and the plot predictably further and sees the return of the first boyfriend as Sarah becomes increasingly neurotic. What did Larkin say about your mum and dad? That's the core of what this play is about, but Sherman is less skilled at handling this than at making us laugh, though Giles does a good job of handling a speech given to psychiatrist Joel that puts the onus on the child.

It's not great theatre but it is fun - so go, enjoy! Playing-in may disguise its flaws. It is great to have a Hackney show that has no eardrum-damaging electronic amplification. Becs Andrews' set seems architecturally rather improbable (though I've no knowledge of 1980s Chicago) and bland but by extending the playing space out beyond the pros arch she has brought the sound forward and done a service to the performers. Matcham designed this large house for variety and not domestic drama and the actors need every help they can get. At a time when audibility is becoming a problem with many performers I'm delighted to say that this cast come through with colours flying.

At Hackney Empire until 1st June, 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton