Sit and Shiver

Steven Berkoff
New End Theatre, Hampstead

Production photograph

The opening is dramatic.

Husband Lionel (Linal Haft) and wife Debby (Sue Kelvin) appear in a fabulously ridiculous momentarily frozen pose. Then, as if by magic, we witness a fast forward mime as the couple dust their living-room.

A Jewish melody fades away. It is replaced by a war of words superbly delivered by Haft and Kelvin. A long side-table heaves with tea-cups, teapot, strudels, cheesecakes, latkes and bagels. It is the centrepiece of Debby's domestic world. Today she is mourning the death of her father Monte, and guests are expected to arrive any minute to convey their condolences.

Sit and Shiver is a malapropism for Sitting Shivah, a Jewish custom where the immediate family of the deceased sit for seven ('shevah') days, starting from the day after the funeral, on low seats and are visited by friends and distant family members.

Berkoff uses this ancient Jewish custom to bring together expected and unexpected guests to unravel the deceased's life and also to assess the dying culture among Eastern European Jews as they seek to assimilate. Old customs, Yiddish words, gestures and habits mingle with the new world of the East End of London.

The loss of neither is really lamented. We learn that Monte really suffered and that now he is at peace. As to the old world, Sam, Monte's blind brother, superbly acted by Barry Davis, tells us that 'you were squeezed like a sponge' or they worked their 'fingers to the bone'. The opportunities that the new world offers mean better working conditions and superior education. One may sit and shiver at the thought of past suffering. The only romantic event from the old days is Sam's return to London from New York for his love, Betty (Bernice Stegers), the woman he shared his life with.

The relationship between the loving Betty and Sam is in stark contrast to that between Debby and Lionel. Debby informs us in an early soliloquy that she was forced to marry. Lionel makes her sick. She mocks and rebukes him in private and in public. Betty, on the other hand, praises and compliments her husband affectionately.

The new generation is represented by the offspring of Lionel and Debby. Mike, a struggling actor, is sensitively played by Iddo Goldberg and Shirley is impressively performed by Catherine Bailley. Mike appears at this 'sombre' occasion with his non-Jewish girlfriend Sylv (Leila Crerar). At this event, we learn that Sam and Betty's son Barry is now an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. They may seem to be professionally and socially very different from their parents, but they share more in common with that generation than one might suppose.

Mrs Green, well performed by Louise Jameson, the unexpected guest, and Sylv, are two non-Jewish women who assist in revealing important home truths.

The tea and food here, just as in Wesker's Chicken Soup and Barley, seems to be the Jewish panacea for social intercourse. However there is tiresome repetition and the references to food and tea towards the end of Act One rather makes one long for the interval!

Berkoff's signature is in the mime, dance and tableaux vivant. The latter provides not only comic effect but also offers the characters a 'free' platform for their soliloquies. The combination of the different genres of acting in this production is effective.

Philip Fisher reviewed this play on its transfer to Hackney Empire, with author Berkoff taking the part of Lionel

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson

Are you sure?