REVIEW: The Rubenstein Kiss, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭✭

Sophie Adnitt reviews The Rubenstein Kiss now playing at Southwark Playhouse.

The Rubenstein Kiss review Southwark Playhouse
Henry Proffit (Jakob) and Eva-Jane Willis (Rachel) in The Rubenstein Kiss. Photo: Scott Rylander

The Rubenstein Kiss
Southwark Playhouse
Four stars
Book Tickets

We move from past to present and back again in Southwark Playhouse’s The Rubenstein Kiss with the sound of electricity buzzing and crackling. The lights flicker with some unseen power surge, Mike Robertson’s spartan yet deeply effective lighting design casting deep shadows under brows, eyes and cheekbones, making everyone beneath the row of hanging lamps look gradually more skeletal.

It’s a foregone conclusion, a clue of things to come – we know they Jakob and Esther Rubenstein (Henry Proffit and Ruby Bentall) are condemned to the electric chair, we just need to know how they got there. This electric current, popping and hissing, is a constant reminder of this inevitability; this couple is going to die. The production is electric too.

The Rubenstein Kiss review
Dario Coates (Matthew) and Katie Eldred (Anna) in The Rubenstein Kiss. Photo: Scott Rylander

Twenty years after the execution, two young people meet in front of a famous photograph of the Rubenstein’s last embrace, unaware of a link between them all that will have lasting consequences. The young couple’s courtship is interspersed with flashbacks to the past, as we witness the last years of Jakob and Esther and their ultimate arrest.

Loosely based on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at the height of America’s McCarthyism, this production marks the play’s first London revival. This venue’s intimate setting serves the play well, as the characters are thrust before us to be put under scrutiny, as the narrative ricochets back and forth between the 1950s and 70s.

The Rubenstein Kiss Southwark Playhouse
Sean Rigby (David) and Henry Proffit (Jakob) in The Rubenstein Kiss. Photo: Scott Rylander

Stories, facts, fake news and urban legends play a huge part in the story and this production and Joe Harmston’s director’s notes assures the unavoidable comparison to current politics – looking at strangers on the street, or even loved ones, and wondering where their loyalties truly lie. The whole thing is very reminiscent of Arthur Miller, which is probably no accident as his work gets a namecheck later on.

But where The Rubenstein Kiss falters is where it tries to carry a lesson. James Phillips’ text verges occasionally on over-earnest moralising and the 70s-set scenes (the weaker side of the play) is a touch melodramatic. Yet in a way this lends itself well to the underlying tragedy of the story; that Esther and Jakob die, pointlessly so, for an idea they’re obsessed with – even if Jakob does consider it to be ‘the most beautiful idea in the world’.

Ruby Bentall as Esther is full of energy and life, magnetic to watch and with half her story going on behind her eyes alone. There’s a real affection that radiates from her, encapsulated in more than what she says; the tender little glances she gives her husband and the moments after her arrest where she wavers, lost, are heartbreaking. She is so resolved and committed you know that she’d follow her husband to the very end. Elsewhere in the cast, Stephen Billington as FBI agent Kramer makes the most of minimal stage time as an imposing presence that gradually cracks to reveal a human side, and Eva-Jane Willis as the Rubenstein’s sister-in-law is also brilliant, if underused.

The Rubenstein Kiss
Stephen Billington (Paul) in The Rubenstein Kiss. Photo: Scott Rylander

But the real gem of this cast is Sean Rigby as Esther’s brother David Girshfeld, the man who ultimately betrays the Rubensteins. Rigby’s performance is remarkable, full of subtleties and totally convincing, ageing before us as time goes on, itchy with guilt and only too aware of what he’s done. The story becomes less about the Rubensteins and more about the Girshfelds, thanks in no small part to Rigby – a story of what comes after the moment of treachery and having to live with it for years to come.

Though by no means subtle, this is a finely crafted production, assisted by a first-rate cast and suitable setting. Hugely affecting, The Rubenstein Kiss remains an excellent example of modern drama in this thoroughly human revival.

Until 13 April 2019

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