So, to the new (and lovely) Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, to see a new play about two couples - one secular English, one ultra-fundamentalist Satmar Hasid - in Stamford Hill.
According to the programme, playwright Sally Llewellyn ‘writes drama about difficult and emotive subjects as a way to try and understand them’, and this play is set up very simply with an ethical dilemma. A young couple, Shalev and Malka, move in next door to Cas and Sam, who have a security light in the shared alleyway to protect their bikes. But it’s forbidden for an observant Jew to make a light go on on Shabbos, and the opening of the play shows Shalev desperately trying to get down the alleyway without making the light go on. He forces himself to ‘speak to next door’, and asks Cas to remove the light, or turn it off on Friday nights. Cas says that as much as she’d like to help, she can’t do that, because of the bikes. He repeats over and over, ‘It’s my religion’; what she can’t understand is that to him that means he has no choice, and he isn’t articulate enough to describe it in any more detail. When Shalev and Malka erect a giant plywood barrier to block the light so thy can keep Shabbos, she goes spare. Her doctor husband Sam tries to calm her down, though of course he also agrees it’s not on. The council won’t do anything. She tells him she can’t back down because it’s the thin end of the wedge and it’ll all end up with calls for separate buses for women.
Malka, meanwhile, is depressed and overworked, and all Shalev wants to do is study. The opening scene features her with a clipboard, barking out orders to the children (present as taped voices) to get ready for Shabbos; from laying out bedtime pyjamas to pre-ripping pieces of loo roll for the next day, a graphic introduction to the amount of work that keeping Shabbos entails. Her main props are a huge buggy and assorted shopping bags, and he just looks at her uncomprehendingly and goes back to his books.
Several things happen. There’s a scene, three months after the erection of the barrier, where a lovely lunch in the garden with her mother and stepfather is ruined by a) Cas obsessing about the barrier, and b) a local neo-Nazi drunk staggering up to the house and shouting his accustomed anti-semitic abuse. The mother, draped in crystals and spouting love for all humanity (and her newly Feng-Shui’d garden), runs to protect Shalev and Malka, and then goes for a walk to buy the organic soya milk she likes, which you can’t get in Potter’s Bar. A minute later she returns, bleeding and traumatised, because she’s had a fall in the road and none of the Hasidic men nearby went to help her, but just stood on and looked.
Cas operates at a pretty consistent fever pitch of agitation. She’s annoyed by the car horns in the street (and the lunch with the parents is also marred by the children shouting and screaming). She works from home a lot and finds it almost impossible with the constant distraction. Sam tries to calm her down with a takeaway and a night in watching telly; the telly is drowned out by chanting. On another occasion when the chanting starts she puts ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ on full blast. She loses her cool, she shouts into Shalev and Malka’s letterbox. She’s so preoccupied by the horror of it all that she forgets about everything else.
I have to admit, laughed when Cas shouted through the letterbox. I have gone to my downstairs neighbours’ door on a weeknight (lights on full, children running, jumping, shouting, food processor going in the kitchen, everyone talking loudly and at once) and stood there in my pyjamas balefully repeating, ‘IT’S AFTER MIDNIGHT.’ I’ve been unable to watch telly, and I routinely put on Artie Shaw’s swing band late on a Friday night. My esteemed other winces at every car horn, even if we’re not in the front room. I even slipped once on a badly placed mat outside the door of a local Jewish bakery, fell down badly, and was surrounded by people looking and not helping. But someone did help.
But I find it inconceivable that, as we’re told, Cas and Sam have been living in Stamford Hill for twenty years. It’s all too new to them. Why is her mum only asking questions now? And why so surprised about the Hasidic men? These questions ask themselves. And I don’t believe that you can’t get organic soya milk in Potter’s Bar, or that you can get it in Stamford Hill; you’d want to go to Whole Foods, which would be a drive, not a walk.
We’re told Malka got straight A’s in art at school; Cas says to her (a few times), ‘but you can go back to college when the kids are grown, right?’ She and Sam are made gormless by the play’s need for explication. I don’t even believe they can leave their bikes outside in the alleyway! They’d be nicked. Even in little houses people clog their halls with bikes rather than leave them outside, and the houses in Stamford Hill are on a huge scale. These details just don’t make sense, and they could have been fixed with minor adjustments.
The neo-Nazi hooligan is an important device within the play, but just n the interest of local accuracy there are no neo-Nazis in Stamford Hill. I’ve never heard of one stone-throwing incident. Once there was a bunch of drunk football hooligans shouting in my street after a cancelled match, but it wasn’t specifically anti-semitic, and I got rid of them pretty easily from the balcony.
Oddly, Shalev and Malka come over as much the better realised of the two couples. The others just exist as embodied outrage and befuddlement. And this is where I stopped feeling it was the play of my life, because what’s missing in Cas and Sam is any sense that they’re used to living in a multicultural place. Billed as ‘liberal-minded’, she – when touched – seems anything but. Given someone outside their social setup, you feel, they simply have no idea how to engage. It’s interesting to me that it’s the mum, not Cas, who rushes to defend Shalev and Malka. Cas just flips out, reaching to phone the police, saying, ‘We can’t put up with this’.
Antonia Davies gives a good performance with what she’s given to work with; I liked her; but I didn’t really recognise her. Jack Pierce as Sam is engaging, tolerant, and avuncular – I liked him tremendously, and Cas clearly needs him – but he doesn’t feel like an N16 man. Twenty years ago Stamford Hill was even more rundown than it is now, and there was no gentrified Church St nearby. Whole Foods was still a lumberyard; there was one coffee shop. These two would have had to be real urban pioneer types. What Sam brings to the play are the common sense and good humour, the comfortable certainty, and sort of class confidence, of - well, of a West Londoner. I’m thinking Chiswick, Putney. Not twenty years at Homerton Hospital.
Despite these issues, the play is moving. There are some laughs, but there’s no solution. The plight of Shalev and Malka is genuinely compelling. They’re struggling to live, with real problems, and they lack the tools to solve them. Toby Liszt and Dominique Gerrard give really fine performances as a young couple facing heavy challenges from both inside and outside their world. Their confusion is palpable, and their anxiety and helplessness are heartwrenching. Bookish Shalev watches as his wife becomes more overwhelmed (I admit, when he hires a cleaner to help her out I felt jealous) and you feel how young he is, and how ill-equipped for the world, to cope with so much responsibility. Malka is clearly troubled by the influence of the neighbours next door (does this ring true? Are my young-mother neighbours made restive by my presence?) and her own frustrated talent. In the first scene, before most of this is known, she and Shalev take out the cloths and candlesticks and lay the table for Shabbos, and even then I suddenly found myself wanting to cry. Her situation is by far the most compelling, and the performances of these two are totally convincing.
There are sharp moments of truth. In the garden, Cas’ mum Roxy (Tessa Wood) exclaims, ‘They, they, they! Listen to you!’ Later, faced with a massive pile of books she’s bought off Abebooks to bone up on Hasidism (‘all primary sources’, which as any fule kno is not worth even attempting, so it’s a joke), she tells her husband Harry (laconically played by Jeremy Bennett) she’s looking for a way in – but ‘it’s a mass of impenetrable thickets’. Harry replies, ‘Impenetrable thickets don’t have a way in.’
Harry is a secular Jew; he grew up in Israel, and says he once saw a group of Hasidic men throwing stones at young girls whose skirts they thought were too short. After the letterbox incident, Cas confesses to him how wound up she’s been, how uncontrollably angry. He replies, ‘Maybe it’s not your anger. Maybe it’s theirs’.
Now, this is interesting. But it is presented as a deep, spiritual answer – Cas immediately feels better, and so did I, for a minute – rather than the same kind of personal reaction we’ve already had from every other character. For it to stack up, we’re asked to draw a straight line from this comment to the fear, sadness and anxiety of Shalev and Malka, and extrapolate something from that, and leave it there. But the play doesn’t ask about Harry’s anger, and I think some of the anger is definitely Cas’ own.
The play is performed in the round, in the theatre’s Park90 space, very economically used. The set encompasses two rooms – one with vaguely retro table and chairs and a poster, one with a chandelier and large Hebrew text on the wall – and some clever lighting. The little phantom children are a brilliant touch – they seemed all the more impish for not being seen. Luke Harrison as a builder, an electrician, the neo-Nazi and a waiter, is a chameleon.
It runs at the Park Theatre until 20 October.
Produced by Earwig Arts Productions; directed by Kirrie Wratten; designed by Anna Hourriere; lighting design by Claire Childs; sound design by Jo Walker
N.b.: Editing in to say that the more I think about it, the gladder I am I went to see this play. At the moment I saw it, having only just woken up in time from an afternoon sleep necessitated by having been kept up half the night before by late-night celebrations all around me – for the second time in a week – I was badly in need of a humanising glimpse into the real lives of my neighbours. All we need to do is speak to each other – and maybe for each other. The depressing thing is not knowing how that can happen. And I also realise I have also known people who probably were more like the couple in this play – uncurious, and applying a so-called ‘liberal’ agenda (we’re right, you’re wrong) to the stickier wickets of multiculturalism. I think my own need felt so great that I wanted them to have my own exact starting point into the conundrum.