Reviews West End & Central Published 31 March 2015

Bad Jews

Arts Theatre ⋄ 18th March - 30th May 2015

A flurry of technique.

Amelia Forsbrook

Daphna (Jenna Augen) has been crashing in her cousin Jonah’s (Joe Coen) luxurious yet crowded apartment for a number of days now, making preparations for, and attending, their grandfather’s funeral. Affluent Liam (Ilan Goodman), after dropping his iPhone from a ski-lift, has been out of touch, and arrives to his brother’s too late for the ceremony with bubble-gum pink valley-girl partner Melody (Gina Bramhill) in tow. Now the Jewish patriarch is dead, it’s up his three grandchildren to decide the direction for this fragmented, argumentative and varied family.

Joshua Harmon’s play builds a strong platform for discussing notions of belonging, providing opportunities to debate whether it’s worth fighting to re-sculpt or maintain Jewish identities. In this modern context “don’t Holocaust me” is a short-fused request to disconnect from cultural history, and the thing that most seems to bond the generation the most is not their inherited religion, but an humorous memory of a family meal that disagreed with the Jewish digestive tract. Unfortunately, though, the bulk of this plot is desperately contrived – and most interactions seem to pave clinically deliberate routes to familiar cultural debates.

Though the noise from another city’s West End rudely spills in, Richard Kent’s set very precisely locates us in the leafy Upper West Side. We are given two adjacent spaces: the studio where Daphna and Jonah have unfolded and inflated their beds, and the tiny communal corridor where the two brothers grasp at the stunted private conversations that do little to ripen understandings of their relationship. Upstage, there’s a door leading to an offstage bathroom – where individual characters disappear at separate points in the narrative, with reasons clearly relating more to the laboured development of plot than the satisfaction of any immediate biological need.

It would, perhaps, be more interesting to see the space behind this door, than a glimpse into the corridor. Harmon assures us that the bathroom has its own aesthetic merits: “You can see the Hudson River from the bathroom”, remark both Daphna and Melody after their offstage visits. More crucially, though, the bathroom provides an opportunity for the more backhand moments of this production: both women hear the comments made about them from the other side of the door – a fact that, while more than obvious, is confirmed by Melody near the end of the play. The reasons why these individuals endure this criticism, offering no response on their return, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this story. It’s a shame, then, that it’s so scantily explored.

The dynamic generated by outspoken and passionately Jewish Daphna and neat little Delaware girl Melody drives the rhythm of this show. Initially, as Augen’s thrillingly bolshy character unsuccessful tries to draw her cousin away from his video-game, the mood is casual, the pace is slow. With a vitality that pulls away from this stasis, Daphna lurches into interrogative small talk, musing on Jonah’s inherited wealth and commenting on the sexual appeal of a man who dresses only in a shirt, boxers and socks. This woman has certainly got bite. She’s senseless, blunt, on the ball – but somewhat unaware of the damage she’s causing, and her insensitive observations provide the foundations for her more blood-thirsty battles with Liam and Melody.  The male characters give little in the way of defence. Liam’s frustrations are volatile: easily triggered, nauseatingly over-acted and polluted by tirelessly low blows. Joe Coen, quite simply, hasn’t been granted the luxury of a character of any great depth or interest.

Daphna’s take on the world is considered and analytical. As the only female in her generation, she strives to see her family embracing a culture that, in its inherent sexism, grants her few favours. While it’s hard to sympathise with her when she urges Liam not to mate with a gentile, there’s certain sadness to her vision of a world populated by ”children [. . .] with hyphenated names from cultures that no longer exist.” Melody’s take on the world is pointedly less academic – “Everyone in here – ” she bleats earnestly, “No matter what you think of them. Is a human being”. With a similar measured flimsiness, Bramhill delivers a wonder of a scene where Delaware’s sweet airhead, eager to use her music school training in order to calm the situation, launches into an operatic Summertime. Melody’s melody is a flurry of technique, all exaggerated trills, overdone slurs and prescribed staccato. She gasps for air and looks ready to swoon, but fearlessly carries on – her work an artfully rough showcase of all the direction she’s been given, and the styles that she’s been instructed to portray. Unfortunately, in this respect, this song is all too much like the production that surrounds it.


Amelia Forsbrook

As a Wales Arts International critic, Amelia toured India with National Dance Company Wales to discover whether national identity abroad could ever amount to more than dragons, sausages and leeks. After moving to London in early 2012, Amelia has continued working as a critic and arts commentator. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance, twentieth century European theatre and quirky little numbers involving improvisation, emotional outburst and abandoned buildings, Amelia writes for a number of publications, as well as being a Super Assessor for the Off West End Awards (The Offies) and Associate Editor at Bare Fiction.

Bad Jews Show Info

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Written by Joshua Harmon

Cast includes Jenna Augen, Gina Bramhill, Joe Coen, Ilan Goodman



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