JW3 is warming to the Yiddish Queen Lear

By Charlotte Oliver, July 17, 2014
Cast members

Cast members

It's Sunday night at JW3 on Finchley Road. On the makeshift beach in the piazza, football fans sit with caipirinhas in hand and eyes locked on the giant screen showing the World Cup Final. But inside the building's 250-seat theatre, events in Brazil are far from the minds of 40 people in costume as they launch into a noisy impromptu hora.

"I don't recall saying action," shouts actress and director Debbie Chazen from the wings. "Did Steven Spielberg just turn up? I don't think so."

Chazen began her stint as artistic director of JW3's am-dram Spielers troupe six months ago, when she directed a cast of 10 in The Melting Pot. She has now upped the ante fourfold, with more than 40 in the revival of the 1898 Yiddish play, Mirele Efros.

Tonight is tech rehearsal, ahead of the show's four-night run next week, and Chazen and co-director Adam Lenson are fine-tuning the movements, lines and costumes of the large cast.

With four actors for every role - the cast changes for each of the four acts - it's a huge undertaking. Particularly for a show tagged the "Jewish Queen Lear".

A rehearsal scene

A rehearsal scene

"We have a lot of people to mobilise but it really is a community on stage," says Lenson, whom Chazen met last year while performing in the West End. "Every cast needs different types. We certainly have that."

The spread of amateur thespians includes lawyers, doctors, teachers and students, with performers ranging in age from 10 to 68. Some are keen dramatists, others stage-frightened first-timers. A few are would-be actors who never quite made it their day job.

For 67-year-old optometrist Isobel Rothbart, the show is a chance to indulge a life-long ambition: "I love performing - it makes me feel alive," she says. Property consultant Janet Lipton, 51, agrees: "I acted in the Berkeley Players at West London Synagogue 20 years ago, but it was hard performing when I had young children. This offers an amazing opportunity to relive those am-dram days and this time my son Daniel is also in the show."

Acting dynasties are common - as exemplified by the Simble family. When Daliah Simble and Andrew Hearn brought their 14-year-old daughter Ariel to audition, they did not expect it would lead to their own starring roles. But thanks to Chazen's powers of persuasion, the couple found themselves reading for parts and now share the stage with Ariel and 10-year-old son Oliver.

"It's taken us totally out of our comfort zones," Hearn says. "I do presentations for my job in digital marketing and I often get nervous. This is helping me build up my confidence. We run through lines at home."

The JW3 production is a modernised rendition of Mirele Efros, the tale of a domineering matriarch who becomes estranged from her family. Yiddish is translated into English, and there are "gaudy" characters who stand out with their The Only Way is Essex impressions. But the original themes of family broiges and wedding dramas still resonate.

"It's a terrific idea to do a Yiddish play," says retired lawyer Terry Sopel. The 64-year-old, who plays a rabbi, is finally satisfying a passion dating back to the time of his barmitzvah. "I just don't think these plays would be performed otherwise." JW3, it is agreed, has opened doors for Jewish performance. "I certainly hope it will be the centre of Jewish theatre in the future, because there are so few other opportunities in shul," reflects 68-year-old Howard Youngerwood. The immigration judge says he is taking part as "a nice little challenge before I go completely ga-ga", having last performed in a play 46 years ago.

"The JC said I was 'nicely irritating'," he recalls. "My wife said she agreed with the adjective, but that I should work on the adverb."

With days until the curtain rises, anticipation is palpable. But Chazen is looking ahead. "Maybe I'll cast 100 people next time," she suggests. "Start thinking of plays we could do."

Mirele Efros will be performed at JW3 from July 20-23 at 7.30pm. 020 7433 8988

Last updated: 4:26pm, July 21 2014