Review: Shalom Baby

Hip Holocaust play that really works

By John Nathan, October 31, 2011

Theatre Royal Stratford East

Shalom Baby aims for - and reaches - a younger audience

Shalom Baby aims for - and reaches - a younger audience

If new plays are to take on the subject of the Holocaust in ways that speak to future generations across the cultural and racial spectrum, then they are going to have to be at least as engaging as this offering from writer and director Rikki Beadle-Blair.

In the wake of English National Opera's production of The Passenger, there has been much comment in the JC as to whether the Holocaust should ever be the subject of theatrical entertainment. For me, this question brings to mind words such as horse, bolted, stable and door. From Peter Weiss's Auschwitz testimony play, The Investigation, to the ill-fated Warsaw ghetto musical, Imagine This, the Holocaust has been, and always will be presented in various forms to paying audiences. And with some of those shows - such as Arthur Miller's Broken Glass currently playing in the West End - the audience have every right to expect to be entertained. But, inevitably, each work comes down to a question of taste.

There are moments in Shalom Baby - such as a concentration-camp scene - where my bad-taste radar began bleeping so loudly I considered watching through gaps in my fingers. But underpinning the play's two Jewish-girl-meets- goy love stories - one set in Nazi Berlin and the other in modern-day Brooklyn - is an instinct that keeps the evening from straying into the deeply naff. And Beadle-Blair deploys every attention-grabbing trick, from rap to rhyme, to keep hold of the gratifyingly mixed audience.

The focus is on two Jewish families - the Weissmanns in Berlin, who struggle to maintain religious observance as the Nazi grip tightens, and the very liberal, dysfunctional Vandermolens of Brooklyn who are so irreligious that, when they decide to give Friday-night meals a go, they have to Google Shabbat to find out what to do. The action smoothly segues between both worlds and each character has an equivalent (played by the same actor) in the parallel story.

At Shalom Baby's core are the families' two daughters, Natalie and Ruth (both played by Katie Borland) and the black man they each fall for (Nathan Clough).

In Brooklyn, Ruth is getting hitched to rap manager Avery, who is so street you could chain your bike to him. But, in Berlin, Natalie's beau is Ike, the Weissmanns' thoughtful, black, South African "Shabbes goy".

The play gives equal stage time to both families, but it is the Berlin scenes and the deepening relationship between the Weissmanns and the man employed to light their fires on Shabbat, that anchors the play and its multi-racial themes.

Ike and what becomes his adoptive Jewish family feel the pressure of Nazi persecution. Kristallnacht is inventively evoked when the actors cross a bare stage, their every step accompanied by a crunch of broken glass.

Beadle-Blair could be accused of overdoing the racial diversity. In Berlin, there is a persecuted gypsy boy whose equivalent in Brooklyn is a Bosnian Muslim lad who has been adopted by another Jewish (off-stage) family. WASPs are represented by a modern, angry white rapper whose Berlin counterpart is a German friend of the Weissmanns who turns Nazi. But somehow this well-acted production juggles all these ingredients without feeling overly mannered, and the multi-racial example-setting without feeling overly worthy. I wish there was more of Ike's history and the life of Berlin's little-known black community under the Nazis. But wanting more is a good deal better than wanting less. And if it takes a slightly sentimental and popularist offering to get a young, mixed audience thinking about the Holocaust, then that is fine with me.

Tel: 020 8534 0310

Last updated: 12:06pm, October 31 2011