Spotlight on our ghetto obsessions

New End Theatre artistic director Brian Daniels targets provincial Jewish life in his new play.

By John Nathan, June 16, 2011
Suzanne Goldberg and Jane Hayward in A Big Day for the Goldbergs

Suzanne Goldberg and Jane Hayward in A Big Day for the Goldbergs

Two plays into a career is a little early to establish a playwright's themes. In the case of Brian Daniels, the chief executive and artistic director of Hampstead's New End Theatre, it is even harder.

Take his first play, A Big Day for the Goldbergs, which has just opened at the New End. A bitter-sweet offering about a loving if dysfunctional Jewish family in Leeds, it is populated by two sisters and their divorced mother. One of the daughters is about to get married to a man she hopes one day to love, the other breaks free of her claustrophobic home life to work in a circus.

"I was asked to do something for the Leeds Jewish Performing Arts Festival," explains Daniels. "Originally it was a little one-hour monologue. Then it kind of grew into a two-person play about two sisters, and because I grew up in Leeds, I heard all those Leeds voices and all the neuroses of a provincial Jewish life and its ghetto mentality."

Now take the second play. Where's Your Mama Gone? recently premiered at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds. "It is really about underclass life," says Daniels. "It's a side of life I saw when I used to accompany my dad to work. He was a tallyman. He used to go around the estates selling people goods on tick. He was selling to the very poorest people."

It is a much darker work predominantly about a pair of twins whose life is torn apart when their mother becomes the first victim of the Yorkshire Ripper.

Wrtier Brian Daniels

Wrtier Brian Daniels

So it is hard to imagine two plays that are more different. But Daniels, who has staged over 200 productions since he sold his employment agency business 14 years ago to become an impresario, puts his finger on a common theme.

"Both plays are about disparate family life and the strength of family relationships," he says. "And although Goldbergs is a comedy, like Where's Your Mama Gone? it has a serious underlying theme. In a way the Goldbergs are a stereotypical Jewish family, but the things that happen to them take them outside that realm of living within the Jewish circle."

And the play, which in its two-hander version did well at the Edinburgh Festival last year, has a message. "It is saying it is OK to be different," says Daniels. "They have the right to live the life they want. Even the play's Jewish matriarch has that journey from thinking she couldn't marry out to where she may have a relationship with a non-Jewish man."

It is, says Daniels, a message that is relevant to the Leeds community where Jewish life can be particularly parochial. "I have always listened to conversations within the community and you pick up what the obsessions are - about whether the children have made good marriages, and whether the marriages are within the faith and what professions the people their children have married are. It's less so in London, but when I go back to Leeds I recognise it more. A lot of people do stay within the community. I don't have a view as to whether it's a good or a bad thing."

Play number three in the Daniels canon promises to be different again. "I'm wsriting about the young men who survived the Holocaust and were transported to the Lake District," he says. In common with its two predecessors it has a strong title - From Auschwitz to Ambleside. "A title can do a lot to make people come. That's one thing I've learned all these years at the New End."

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Last updated: 11:43am, June 16 2011