Sit and Shiver

Steven Berkoff
Hackney Empire
(2007)

Production photo

Steven Berkoff is a throw back to an earlier time. Who else apart from a deluded student would write, direct and act in a single play?

The title Sit and Shiver is a pun on the Jewish custom of sitting shiva, the term for a week of mourning following a death, in this case of Monty Hyman who must have been in his eighties.

The play takes place in the appropriately black-walled home of Monty's daughter, Debbi, and her husband. Debbi, given over-the-top life by Sue Kelvin, is histrionically Jewish to the core, while Berkoff, a delight with the famous arm gesticulations, has taken over as hen-pecked hubby, Lionel.

At the beginning, one is steeped in Yiddish and mimed wild gestures. The wise will invest in a programme and read the translations before the start, if only to have some idea of what is being said.

Gradually, the guests turn up to tell tales and share memories but also to moan about everything under the sun. The star is Barry Davis playing Sam, the dead man's brother, who may be blind but has more vision and wisdom than the rest put together.

While the older generation get many of the best stories, the youngsters play their part, soothing egos and making tea. Invisible food is inevitably served in abundance and provides a way to show that young Mike's (Russell Bentley) fiancée, Leila Crera's Sylv is a shiksa (not Jewish).

The much longer first half contains what might be an excess of scene setting but with Berkoff this is rarely a bad thing, since he always provides music and slow motion scenes to nullify any flatter sections.

The curtain falls just after the arrival of another shiksa, Mrs Green, played by Dr Who and EastEnders star Louise Jameson. Her first revelation is entirely predictable. Why else would she turn up out of the blue, if she hadn't been having an affair with the dead man, whom everyone else had just spent five minutes eulogising?

The play acquires far greater depth in the last 45 minutes as she almost shocks the breath out of an initially aggressive Debbi, who cannot accept that her perfect father was far from it.

Mrs Green's second surprise allows the entire ensemble to have their say and do a great mute shock scene, à la Punch cartoons. With help from all present, the family come to terms with their new understanding of grandpa and eventually achieve an unexpected maturity.

This play is pure Berkoff, if a little quieter than usual. He captures a whole community with real comedy and affection but no great depth.

After starting in the tiny New End Theatre in an upmarket part of Hampstead (see Rivka Jacobson's review), it has appropriately transferred to the massive Hackney Empire on an inner city high street, a magnificent venue that all of the characters would have visited in their childhood.

Steven Berkoff is a one-off and should be cherished. While his writing is a little patchy, at its best it is a real pleasure to behold and the directing is predictably strong. Oddly, he does not have his usual dominant stage presence, although a rant at the end when Lionel eventually snaps is a joy.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher