Theatre review: One Jewish Boy

As theatres close, John Nathan sees one last show


Before Covid-19 laid waste to West End theatre the virus of anti-semitism was to be reflected on at least three London stages.

At the Wyndham’s Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt explores the hate through the fate of Viennese Jewish family in the first half of the last century; while the Almeida’s The Doctor starring Juliet Stevenson, was due to transfer to the Duke of York’s Theatre. A feely adapted aversion of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi it offers a terrifying — and now familiar— reflection of how the scourge becomes respectable.

And now there is also Stephen Laughton’s two-hander One Jewish Boy which was first seen last year at The Old Red Lion and arrived as a slightly expanded version at the Trafalgar Studios (but is now suspended).

Described as an urgent response to the recent tide of anti-Jewish attacks it attracted antisemitic abuse for its author with its first outing. Few plays have its point so helpfully illustrated.

Laughton’s protagonists are Jewish Jesse (Robert Neumark-Jones) and “mixed-heritage” Alex (Asha Reid). On paper they have a lot going for them. He’s an academic, she’s in marketing and planning to strike out on her own. They have a baby too. Yet our first encounter with them is bruising.

Alex is serving Jesse with divorce papers. She walked out on him weeks earlier and the rest of the play’s uninterrupted 90 minutes assembles the backstory like jigsaw pieces.

In Sarah Meadows’s sure-footed production the effect is like sitting in a time machine that lands on milestones in the relationship. Georgia de Grey’s slick design conveys the relevant year with numbers that shine momentarily from the graffiti-strewn wall against which all the action takes place.

We see Jesse and Alex deciding to try for a baby; Jesse and Alex in fits of giggles as they smoke weed; Jesse and Alex getting married or Jesse and Alex living in New York where Jesse thinks it is safe for Jews to live, this being before such events as the Pittsburgh atrocity and shootings in New Jersey.

There are flashes too of the event that informs Jesse’s life more than any other. During these, and to the sound of disembodied anti-semitic insults, his body convulses under an apparent wave of kicks and punches that put him in hospital.

Laughton’s dialogue is smart and savvy though at times it veers dangerously close to repetitive banter. But almost every exchange is infected by Jesse’s fear of anti-semitism.

Any attempt by Alex to mitigate Jesse’s fear is met with Jesse’s “inherited trauma” - the legacy he explains repeatedly and at length of the persecution suffered by forebears — though not in Highgate where he was raised. In these heated exchanges Jesse is somewhat trigger-happy when it comes to using the big gun of the Holocaust to assert his right to be fearful.

“I have scar tissue in my DNA” he declares apparently unaware of how self- aggrandising this sounds. And when in an earlier scene conveying their first meeting Alex asks Jesse if he is Jewish and he answers in the affirmative with “chosen” it’s not clear whether Laughton is intending to convey wit or nauseating arrogance.

Both performances are terrific, but sympathy for Jesse fatally drains away. And because we never really learn of the circumstances of the attack the impression builds that his fear is out of proportion to the abuse he suffered. So you can’t blame Alex for leaving him.

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