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The young playwright who wants to show people what it’s like to be a Jewish teen

As her play Life Before the Line comes to London, Amy Lever explains why she is putting the lives of Manchester Jewish teenagers in the spotlight

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Being Jewish is normally portrayed on stage and screen through an American or Israeli lens.

But a new play getting its London debut this weekend puts the life of Manchester Jewish teenagers in the spotlight.

Playwright Amy Lever based Life Before the Line on her schooldays at King David High School.

“It’s about four Jewish teenagers and their relationships with each other, with being Jewish, with being Northern, being a young person growing up, and also the very specific political and social climate that was 2016-2017,” she tells me, speaking from her home in Manchester as she prepares for the performance at London’s Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone this Sunday.

The play follows the stories of Esty, Allister, Danny and Sara, who are just about to take their GCSEs.

It delves into their romantic relationships, complicated friendships, class identities, and sexualities — all of this going on while they are trying to understand their place in a world that appears to be increasingly hostile to Jews.

King David pupils may recognise the setting, but Lever is keen to stress that the play comes from her imagination.

“The characters are fictional. Most of the events are also fictional, but based on real experiences, and there are instances of antisemitism in the play that I purposefully picked because they had happened in real life.”

A key event in the play is something that most Brits would associate with the US, but Jewish children experience every year: the terror alarm going off. This happened to Lever in real life:

“The alarm was installed when we had a rise in threats around 2015-2016. The school didn’t tell anyone that they’d installed it, and one of the ladies in the office accidentally hit the alarm during lunchtime.

"Me and my friend had just come out of class to get lunch and this awful wail started that sounded like a World War Two siren, and it was terrifying.

The play starts at the end of the school year when they’re doing their last revision before their GCSEs, and then the terrorist alarm goes off. They think, because they’ve not had any warning, that it might be real, and it’s used as a device to flip back and forth between the present day and the scenarios in the past that they’ve gone through.”

How do you make a non-Jewish audience feel and understand something so alien to most of them? Lever uses a real-life event: the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017: “It was almost a way of connecting the experiences that these young Jewish people had had, that threat that they have on a daily basis, and then the threat that people have experienced regardless of who they are on a wider basis.

"I think it was that really important human connection.”

The play was originally performed as a student production at Cambridge University’s Corpus Playroom, where it received five-star reviews, sold out and named one of the top ten productions of the year. It won the prestigious Cambridge University Edinburgh Fringe Fund — an award in which one student-written script is selected to be fully funded at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Lever hopes non-Jewish audiences will understand the reality of growing up Jewish. “Jewish people are important, and their stories aren’t just Holocaust films, and it’s not just about being Orthodox or escaping the extreme Orthodox community. We fit in with your contemporary life.

"We are one of you and you are one of us. I wanted an understanding of that experience, but also being able to relate to it and not seeing it as learning something about a minority group, but relate to a different group of people in different ways. I would like the audience to feel like they’ve learned something, but also that they see themselves in it and have a connection to the story.”

‘Life Before the Line’ is at the Cockpit Theatre on January 29.
thecockpit.org.uk/show/life_before_the_line

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