Julian Eaves reviews Not Quite Jerusalem, a play by Paul Kember now playing at the Finborough Theatre, London.
Not Quite Jerusalem
5th March 2020
In 1980, four assorted 20-somethings, seeking fun and excitement away from the UK, meet on a kibbutz and clash, argue, fall in and out of love with each other and the two Israelis having to manage their voluntary work. We follow them in an arc from first arrival to final departure, seeing each affected and changed by their experiences, which the author uses to open up an exploration of British identity. While there is some contextualization of Israel, more important here is the chance to reveal hidden truths about who Brits are and what they think of themselves and the wider world, which makes this into a most timely revival. This 40th anniversary production – also coincidentally the 40th season of the venue itself – is a rediscovery of an extremely well written play that since its premiere has been quite bafflingly ignored by the professional stage.
Perhaps the most interesting journey here is that of Gila, the kibbutz volunteer supervisor. In the role, Ailsa Joy gives a magnificent performance in which every second is perfectly observed, minutely detailed, and expertly balanced within the overall conception of the character. She is particularly good at using the ‘broken English’ of her character in a range of different ways to convey first her separation from her group, and then her fractured attempts at forming a close relationship with one of them, Mike. While a ‘strong’ character, who stands for no nonsense, she also conveys profound sensuousness in her eyes and gaze, making her emotional journey powerfully credible and fascinating. Seen recently to great acclaim in ‘Bad Jews’ at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, this is a part that puts her even more on the map as a seriously powerful actress.
A comic foil to Gila’s seriousness, however, is found in the splendid Ronnie Yorke as the truly ghastly prole, Pete – a creation whose whole mind and soul seem predicated by the content of Page 3 of The Sun. Already the recipient of an Offie nomination for his role in ‘Will…’ at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, this is another outstanding performance. His electric physical energy and vividly expressive face communicate purposefulness and complexity at every turn: given a part that is superficially two-dimensional, his close reading and analysis of the text – combined with his expert professionalism – reveal a web of contradictions and vulnerabilities that make this part compelling and important.
The rest of the company is equally strongly cast. Ryan Whittle’s Mike is the chief ‘love interest’, complicated by a lack of spine, on a personal route starting in a haze and ending in Scotch mist; Miranda Braun finds some strident colours in the similarly oddly dysfunctional part of nurse Carrie; while Joe McArdle completes the roster of Brits with an unrecognisable turn as Pete’s louche, born side-kick. As the other face of Israel, Russell Bentley is a quiet and calm Ami. It’s a tightly fitted crew, and room on the theatre’s postcard-sized stage is hard to come by where they constantly rub up against each other. Yet, for this event, upcoming design talent Ceci Calf has devised a remarkably evocative impression of the farm, a design that is lit with poetic imagination by the also new and one-to-watch Ryan Joseph Stafford: his handling of density, saturation and fading, combined with an unerring sense of what to do with the set, make his work a joy in itself. Isobel Pellow is the clever mind behind the nifty costume choices: with everything from power and authority for Gila, through to a pair of cut-off jeans that make Pete look like he just stepped out of ‘Magic Mike’. Yes, this is a show with something for everyone.
It is also the most recent personal achievement of director, Peter Kavanagh. Much more than just a director here, he originated the project on the advice of theatre artistic director, Neil McPherson, and he has mounted it with his own funds, and a couple of co-producers. Kavanagh’s role as Senior Drama Producer for BBC Radio has enabled him, through his excellent contacts to agents, to cast the production with the very best talent available, and it is his desire to seek a transfer. He has also had to rethink a play that has not been touched by the industry for four decades, and has led his company through a month-long rehearsal process has produced what we now see, and what he continues, with the company, to refine. It is a remarkable rediscovery of a play known by repute but unaccountably almost never seen. Yes, the first half may feel that even by the interval, it still hasn’t quite taken off: nonetheless, every scene plays beautifully, this is actors’ theatre that works. However, a true sense of urgency only arrives in the second half, where there is suddenly everything to play for. Author Paul Kember (better known to audiences through his many TV roles as an actor, perhaps) scored a massive success with this, his very first play: seeing it again now he’s still pleased with it. And I think you will be, too. As a gap year activity, this may not be quite Jerusalem, but it’s a hell of a ride.
Not Quite Jerusalem runs until 28 March at Finborough TheatreBOOK TICKETS FOR NOT QUITE JERUSALEM