Review: The Holy Rosenbergs

Kosher drama that's a little hard to digest



Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1

Alex Waldmann (left), Susannah Wise and Henry Goodman in Ryan Craig’s Edgware epic

Alex Waldmann (left), Susannah Wise and Henry Goodman in Ryan Craig’s Edgware epic

Just when you might be recovering from the surfeit of Jews-under-the-microscope drama that has been served up on stage and screen over the past couple of years, along comes Ryan Craig with The Holy Rosenbergs. At the National Theatre - noch, as one of his characters would doubtless say. Short of incorporating a flashing neon sign saying "Jewish play", it is as insistently a kosher a piece of work as can be imagined. Indeed, in Laurie Sansom's production, it all takes place in the rather too meticulously constructed dining room of a kosher caterer and his family.

The business is in trouble and the caterer's wife - herself a staunch member of the firm - wants her husband to cut his losses and get out of not just catering but the local community, too. That community is Edgware, where the residents appear to have the narrowest of minds, be they rabbis, simchah guests, or consultant obstetricians who "have to be that little bit better" to overcome prejudice and reach the top of the professional tree.

The caterer, David Rosenberg, is played at breakneck pace by Henry Goodman, squeezing every little shluff and tookas out of the script for all he is worth. In a whirl of set-piece exchanges, he is required to change tack so often that he resembles a comedy impressionist rather than a man desperately trying to keep himself and his family together. It is a mark of Goodman's acting skill that, amid this mayhem, he is still able to meet the various emotional challenges movingly.

Tilly Tremayne does a nice turn as a steadfastly ironic Jewish mother, and Susannah Wise, as her daughter Ruth, convinces as a humane but precious lawyer. Philip Arditti, as a stiffly awkward young rabbi, and Alex Waldmann, as the resolutely rebellious son, take time to get into gear as tensions build over Ruth's participation in a Goldstone-like report into Israel's actions in Gaza. Yes, Gaza, with all of The Promise' s provocative entrail-probing.

It will probably be apparent by now that the ingredients thrown into this particular kosher casserole are far too numerous. Too much is going on. The dialogue strains so hard to ring true that it creaks. The "natural" becomes unnatural.

Most unnatural of all is that this jokey, fressy, arguing, assertive family life is taking place on the eve of the funeral of the Rosenberg's elder son who has been killed in Gaza while serving in the IDF.

We are asked to accept that elements in the community are planning to demonstrate at the funeral against the presence there of the dead man's sister, Ruth, on account of her participation in the UN report. Not only that, but an old family friend - the aforementioned obstetrician played with cool suavity by Paul Freeman - threatens to cancel his booking for David to cater his daughter's wedding if Ruth turns up at the cemetery - a booking that could save David from penury and redeem him from the cold-shouldering by those bigoted denizens of Edgware who choose to believe that the Rosenberg salmon caused the death of an unlucky diner.

Among the stresses and strains and lively exchanges between spouses and siblings, and some hints at recognisably Jewish comedy (closer to the more sparky Grandma's House than the dire Friday Night Dinner) there is a promising family drama trying to get out under the dead weight of the characters' utterly unlikely political posturing.

The domestic conflicts involving the proud paterfamilias, the weary wife, the idealistic daughter and the scorned younger son are really rather affecting. Unfortunately, the caterer's lokshen pudding is seriously over-egged.

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    Last updated: 10:55am, March 18 2011