Jesse, a self-described “nice North London Jewish boy”, barricades himself into Georgia de Grey’s Sukkah-like set, which provides shelter and prevents him from interacting with outside communities, but can’t protect him from an antisemitic attack. This seeming insularity in his life is mirrored by the small world in which Stephen Laughton’s play is set, which focuses on the effects the attack on Jesse has on his relationship with Alex, a mixed race gentile woman from Peckham. For eighty minutes we watch Jesse lose himself to paranoia and dogma after he is beaten up and called “a dirty fucking Jew.”
Jesse is drowning in his growing obsession with antisemitism. Not without cause. Antisemitism has been rising since 2014, and there was a spike in antisemitic crime in April and May this year, triggered by political situations in the UK and abroad. More Jewish communities are engaging the services of the CST (Community Security Trust) to protect them when they hold events across the country. But a problem with this play is that we don’t really hear about any of this, which means there is a lack of context. Although Jesse himself acknowledges that he is a secular Jew, we never see him beyond or outside his relationship with Alex. Therefore what it even means to be secular – a fluid and complex thing – is never properly explored, so it is impossible to judge if Jesse’s views represent those of a particular Jewish community, or are those of an individual deeply traumatised by a racist attack.
The set seems a metaphor for Jesse’s inability to place himself in the real world, although even when we wind back to meeting Jesse pre-attack, he already seems turned in on himself. The fact that his grandparents survived the Holocaust provides him with the basis for his belief in inherited trauma, an idea Alex resolutely rejects.
Jesse and Alex’s relationship makes us warm to them, even if the arguments and the discussions the two have over antisemitism become one-sided, abrasive and weighted in Jesse’s favour. We hear much about the problems around the increasing trend to conflate Zionism with being Jewish, Jewish with being Israeli, antisemitism with anti-Zionism and the tendency by some political figures to believe that Jews don’t fit into the category of the oppressed, which are all salient points. But we learn less about Alex’s experiences of being mixed race, of whether she can empathise or not and thereby effectively challenge Jesse and hold her own. In the end, this works to Alex’s detriment as she becomes the stereotypical girlfriend, alternately holding his hand and being shouted down. Again this could be Laughton’s point – that though Jesse considers himself to be secular, he is still unconsciously entrapped within certain gender hierarchies that are entrenched within some strands of Orthodox Jewish thought.
Robert Neumark-Jones is dynamic as the insular young Jewish man whose internal and external life is turned upside down by the attack. Even as Jesse’s repeated arguments become irritating because they go nowhere, Neumark-Jones exposes his vulnerability and charisma. Asha Reid as Alex is persuasive as the more mature adult of the two; her character goes on a far bigger developmental journey, leaving Jesse to scramble around in his dark Sukkah. Both Neumark-Jones and Reid extol natural acting talent and intelligence. It is pleasurable just watching them onstage.
Whilst it is possible to get lost in the loving scenes between Jesse and Alex, which are really quite wonderful and brilliantly written, the choice to confine this play’s discussions around antisemitism to these two characters makes for a narrow experience. And whilst I get that the racist and antisemitic attack, brilliantly staged by director Sarah Meadows, can be seen as a metaphor for Jesse turning against his own identity, the idea does not go anywhere. The real interest is in what Jesse will do at the end of the play: how he will handle his breakdown and fractured sense of self. But then the play stops when really, it could go on for another act.
One Jewish Boy is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 5th January. More info here.