'Jewish' does not equal 'Good'

As the unfunny jokes in NotMoses bombed like a lead balloon I began to get flashbacks to a time when bad plays about, and by, Jews were a regular fixture


As the unfunny jokes in NotMoses, the new not funny comedy by Leon The Pig Farmer creator Gary Sinyor, bombed like a lead balloon at the play's opening night recently, I began to get flashbacks to a time when bad plays about, and written by, Jews were a regular fixture on the British theatrical landscape.

Most, if not all, found a stage at Hampstead's now-closed New End Theatre, a venue that survived 15 years on the loyalty of its Jewish audience. It was always a conundrum I could never quite solve. The most literate and discerning theatre audience in London, the theatre capital of the world, regularly gave up evenings for shows that, with very few exceptions were badly written, amateurishly acted and disastrously directed. But because the plays were Jewish in theme, content and character they had an audience. A Jewish audience.

Going to the New End was a bit like going to synagogue, where the faces are familiar and the show, sorry, service, almost always feels as if it has lasted longer than it should. And, just like synagogue, the New End's congregation - sorry, audience - invariably forgave the flaws in the service – sorry, show. Why?

Why should Jews be more tolerant of Jewish failings? Is it because we think that gentiles are often predisposed to dislike plays of Jewish content because they are predisposed to dislike Jews? That would be silly.

There was a similar sense at NotMoses. The auditorium was full of Jews. And, as the gags in Sinyor's biblical play flew, then floundered, the Jews in the audience drummed up what laughter they could. At least, that's how it felt to me. It was as if NotMoses was relying on Jewish goodwill to survive the evening, not on giving its paying audience a good time.

Far be it for me to doubt the sincerity of those Jews who have praised the show, but the production is advertising itself with the legend "'Relentlessly funny', Maureen Lipman." Now, for all I know, Maureen Lipman found NotMoses as funny as the quote says she did. But because Lipman is one of the funniest and finest actors in the country, and also because she is in every way a pillar of the Jewish community, I can't help but wonder if there is some good old Jewish allegiance at play here because NotMoses was created by a Jew. And if there is, could it be an example of the kind of well intended support that has kept good Jewish, British plays from flourishing in this country?

I admit that, as the JC's theatre critic, I have fallen into this trap, if trap it be. Looking back at my reviews on plays written by and about Jews, I, too, could be accused of setting the bar for Jewish works lower than I might have if the plays were not Jewish. Did Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years really deserve all those stars? Probably not.

This doesn't happen in other areas of public life. When Jews fall below the standards of what is considered good behaviour, it is a source of pride - for me least – that their fellow Jews will be among their harshest critics.

Of course, with bad theatre, the stakes are lower than when a Jew steals, kills or abuses. But, still, in the closeted world of showbiz, really bad theatre is a crime. And if it's a Jew who is the criminal, Jews should be among its harshest critics.

A few months ago, there arrived on these shores a play from America called Bad Jews. It's still here, touring the country; spreading the word that plays about Jews, written by a Jew, can be good. Not "good" as in the kind of play that Jews enjoy because of the novelty of seeing their oft-overlooked lives represented on stage. But really good. Good as in the kind of play that is going to grip and enthrall anybody who sees it, whether Jewish or not. Good as in likely to beckon the directors of later generations to take it down from the shelves and revive it. Good as in, say C. P. Taylor's play about the seduction of fascism called, to confuse things a tad, Good. Or good as in Bread and Butter, his less often staged but richly painted play about two working class Jewish couples living in pre- and post-Second World War Glasgow. That kind of Good.

Or what about the Arnold Wesker trilogy which straddles roughly the same period. They were - are - also, genuinely, undeniably good.

More recently there have been, erm… well, actually not much. This country has, it is true, over the past decade-and-a-half, produced a fair number of plays by Jewish writers that reflect Jewish experience in Britain.

Some of them are good - but in the noble sense of grappling with weighty themes of a post-Holocaust nature.

But where are the plays that break out of the velvety comfort zone that a Jewish audience appears willing to afford Jewish plays just because they are Jewish?

It is time for Jewish audiences to be as tough on Jewish plays as they are on non-Jewish plays. And maybe the result will be more Jewish plays that are genuinely good.

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