Kosher Harry

Nick Grosso
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2002)

Kosher Harry is a surreal comedy set in a kosher restaurant in St John's Wood. Do not be misled: this is not a quaint little sitcom with lots of mild, Jewish jokes about goings-on in the High Street. Sadly, the lady next to me was expecting this and she left during the interval.

As might be expected from a play written by Nick Grosso and directed by Kathy Burke, there is a real hard edge to the comedy. Not one of the four characters is what he or she seems to be and the central figure, a young man played nonchalantly by the excellent Martin Freeman, might even be a servant of Beelzebub.

The play is made up of a number of short scenes containing perfect-sounding dialogue that often has limited meaning. These scenes are split by one second explosions rather like instant power cuts.

Kosher Harry is a salt beef bar that has seen better times. Despite the tablecloths, it is surprisingly grubby and is reduced to employing illegal immigrants from beyond what was the Iron Curtain. This creates major demarcation disputes for the waitresses. These extend both to their spheres of influence and their sexual relations with the chef.

Claudie Blakeley as the waitress is hilarious. With her pigtails, a pencil through her hair and her order book in a red garter on her thigh, she is respectful and feisty by turns. By the end of the play, her character is also very well developed and wholly believable. This is some achievement in view of the activities that take place in the restaurant.

First, she meets the young man who claims to be a customer although he does not look like the normal clientele. Both his jacket and trousers are holed and, while telling nothing about himself, he learns her every secret.

The remaining two characters arrive together, they are the 92 year-old Mrs Cider, played by June Watson; and the loyal taxi-driver, Mark Benton, who regularly takes her to the restaurant. This double-act is also very funny. There is a real affection between them but it is hidden beneath much banter based on his racism and her deafness. Bigotry is one of the main themes of the play as we see negative attitudes towards every human type under the sun attacked in the worst ways. Both actors do impressive jobs with their stereotypical characters.

Eventually, the young man acts on the others like a kind of truth drug. He also goads his "victims" into uncharacteristic actions such that the taxi driver, a boring family man, becomes a sex beast, the waitress undresses and the old lady leaves her wheelchair to dance a jig.

All of this is presented by Nick Grosso's typically ultra-realistic but very funny dialogue with a great deal of very un-St John's Wood language. The play's meaning is rather lost in the complexities of the plot although it may well be an attack on bigotry or an investigation of the nature of identity. It doesn't really matter.

In any event, Kosher Harry is often very funny thanks to the playwright's incisive recognition of North London speech patterns and dialogue and Kathy Burke's drilling of her actors that ensures perfect timing throughout.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher