From Marx to Dylan, a year of Jewish drama

John Nathan shares his hits of the year


2017 was a strong year for Jewish plays and practitioners, beginning, promisingly, at Southwark Playhouse with the hugely nostalgic Promises, Promises, Neil Simon and Burt Bacharach’s musical version of The Apartment.

No production better combined Jewish character and theatre maker than Young Marx, the inaugural production of the newly formed Bridge Theatre.

Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s comedy about the founder of Socialism when he was a “penniless Jew” in London heralded the welcome return of Nicholas Hytner to London theatre. It’s great to have him back.

After Marx’s youth came Young Frankenstein (could there have been any booking mishaps?) which saw Mel Brooks deliver the funniest musical in the West End since the last time he delivered the funniest musical in the West End. This show isn’t quite the hit that The Producers was, but Ross Noble’s Igor is every bit as good as Marty Feldman’s original in the film — and then some.

This year saw a 50th anniversary production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the play that launched the career of the man who is for many the greatest living playwright,Tom Stoppard. The cast in David Leveaux’s elegant production was pretty impressive, too. Daniel Radcliffe delivered a terrifically underplayed Rosencrantz while Joshua McGuire was a wonderfully cerebral Guildenstern.

Ryan Craig stormed back to form at the Hampstead Theatre with Family Business. Set in a rubber merchant’s London shop, his heroine, Yetta Solomon is an antidote to the stereotypical Jewish mother. Yetta (played by Sara Kestelman) has more in common with Al Capone than anyone’s Yiddishe Mama. She’s a character whose sheer charisma will attract generations of actors to come.

But perhaps the most powerful Jewish story told this year was, almost inevitably, written by Arthur Miller. His little revived Incident at Vichy was given an unbearably taut production by director Phil Willmott at the Finborough. It’s a short, sharp, deeply shocking play, set in a Vichy police station where Jews wait for their fate after being rounded up.

The 1990s Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Norway were the inspiration for JT Rogers’s fantastically ambitious drama Oslo about the most recent and yet ultimately ill fated hope for peace. The achievements of this National Theatre production are many and multi-layered. But conspicuous among them is that, whereas most attempts to dramatise the Middle East conflict are simplistic (often with somewhat demonising depictions of Israel), this one is thrillingly complex. The West End transfer ends at the Harold Pinter Theatre tomorrow.

For sheer acting prowess you can’t beat the performances given by Nathan Lane as the ruthlessly homophobic and gay Republican Roy Cohn and Andrew Garfield as a gay man infected with Aids. Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America (1991) is set in Reagan’s America. Almost every political line could have been about Trump.

The National was also responsible this year for an astonishingly good revival of Stephen Sondheim’s memory musical Follies. Astonishing, not just because the production seamlessly intersects the stories of former showgirls, and not only because it boasts stand-out performances from Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee among others, but because this was director Dominic Cooke’s first musical. You’d think it was his fiftieth.

The year’s other notable musical theatre first-timer was a certain Bob Dylan whose back catalogue forms the sound-track to Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson’s play about surviving  the Depression — or dying from it. For those who love Dylan it’s unmissable. For those who can’t bear his voice this is the perfect intro to the reluctant Nobel Laureate’s music.

John Nathan is the JC’s theatre critic

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