FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by Peter Kavanagh, designed by Ceci Calf, lit by Ryan Stafford, Costume Design’s by Isobel Pellow. Assistant Director’s Anastasia Bunce, Stage Manager Anna Townley, Production Assistant Sandi Ballardo. Rebecca Lyle and Leigh Spence are co-producers. Till March 28th.
Some plays resoundingly of their time start kicking their time-capsule to pieces years later. So choose your revivals carefully and something vital emerges; there’s no going back. So it proves here.
There’s a neat symmetry in mounting a revival of Paul Kember’s debut play Not Quite Jerusalem. Like the Finborough Theatre it celebrates its 40th anniversary after an award-winning premiere in December 1980 at the Royal Court.
Directed here by Peter Kavanagh it sparkles with relevance and a streak of nostalgia. Four Brits in their mid-twenties – Mike, Carrie, Pete and Dave – arrive in a rain-sodden heap at a kibbutz in summer 1979, wondering where the sun, sex, booze and other nationals are. Over a little light holiday-work. The sun arrives, but it’s 100 degrees and they’re bent in hard labour.
Kember’s best-known as an actor but his three plays show what we’ve missed: adroit dialogue, sharp characterisation which deepens throughout, a generous focus on each character – and combination. This allows some deft reveals.
Designed in the round by Ceci Calf in the intimate Finborough space, there’s a tangible sense of both the shack-like barracks and later, blaze of sun over bales of straw and farming implements as the quartet discover blistering hard work for bed and board. And a fourth-wall swimming pool for light relief. Being lit pitilessly and tenebrously by Ryan Stafford – there’s a fine sun-slatted moment too – makes heat palpable. Subdued period costume design’s by Isobel Pellow.
We see mouthy-but-smart Essex Pete (Ronnie Yorke) and hapless lost Yorkshireman Dave (Joe McArdle) annoy Miranda Braun’s nurse Carrie whose prim sense of how the world should order itself extends to hopeless attempts to corral the others along kibbutzim guidelines.
Carrie’s lost too, latching on to Ryan Whittle’s withdrawn complex Mike. Learning he’s a late-entry Cambridge student, not yet that he’s dropped out after his first year, Carrie attempts touchingly to get close and gets politely rebuffed. Braun’s character – secrets and anxieties just a skin deep – is the trickiest to bring off and she manages it superbly, a pained comedy masking distress. Braun’s timing of that too is wincingly fine.
Scorned by nearly everyone with varying degrees of subtlety, Braun conveys Carrie’s tremulous gambits. To her bracketing of Mike and herself as ‘us’ versus the others – ‘Where do they get them from?’ – Mike’s put-down is unforgivable: ‘Exactly the same place they got you from.’ Mike shows other redemptive qualities, but misogyny ripples and Kember’s unexpected whistleblower turns out to be Pete, both more acute and more reckless than he appears. Kavanagh adds a touch at the end to underline Carrie’s warmth and it’s absolutely right.
The play though is Mike’s and Ailsa Joy’s straight-taking Gila. She’s an Israeli third-year army recruit choosing to spend her final stretch on the kibbutz. Like the more philosophical kibbutz leader Ami – Russell Bentley’s slow-burn control warms and burns too – Gila despises the British contingent more than any. Volunteers who slouch towards Jerusalem to be reborn as – what? Loud-mouthed door-breaking failed seducers, drunken louts who moan into easy billets and can’t use a billhook. This is England – abroad. It’s an abiding theme by the end.
Mike’s different. He knows why he’s come out, what he’s escaping, and Bentley’s Ami wants him as team leader, revealing the rotational nature of leadership and socialism that Mike in particular embraces (as does Carrie). Mike’s badinage with Gila, trading her insults for his about her command of English could be misogyny too but it’s more a deep flirtation tinged with student arrogance.
Whittle’s languorous disdain, boredom and passionate ignition all derive from the same rueful fire. There were a few plays with disgruntled Oxbridge students around this time but Mike is grounded in being older and Kember identifies a moribund country where socialism seems failing with something darker replacing it. Mike so desperately argues for a different world: ‘All I’m talking about is this. Democracy. Having a say in your own affairs. Taking decisions about your own lives … It’s not like that in England.’ Indeed not. There’s more than a touch of valedictory looking-forward-in-anger in Mike’s big speech.
Joy’s as enthralling as acetylene cutting through encrusted crap. She’s also warm, making Gila comically aware of her halting English and ready to riposte; first in monosyllables ‘now work’ then as Mike’s interrogator as they inevitably draw sparks. To Mike’s ‘I feel like screaming’ she mirrors ‘So scream’ and continually prods him on his life – triggering one long speech – and other put-downs. To poor Carrie’s painting: ‘You sit here for million year, baby, still you have no feel for colour.’
Gina’s most devastating moment comes she stumbles on Pete’s savage, clever racist skit about getting cheap labour. She finds it mordantly funny. Pete and Dave are being forced to rehearse for a variety turn when each contingent showcases their country’s culture. Pete’s insufferable with loutish songs to a lovely Swedish chorus offstage. Yorke’s Pete is one of those who reveal someone afraid of their intelligent selves, resorting to default idiocy to match McArdle’s gormless Dave.
Pete’s solution ‘Underneath the arches’ replete with British flags ends with a gesture that triggers crisis, where Mike’s part in reluctantly defending the pair proves pivotal to all their futures.
Though supporting roles Yorke and McArdle breathe the left-behind Britain that’s only hardened over 40 years. McArdle’s hangdog Dave is a small masterclass in lessness, shrinkage. One of the most touching moments comes in those unexpected duets when Bentley’s Ami uses a reminiscence of seeing snow at 22 for the first time and such ‘moments of joy… ’ to cajole Dave. ‘Don’t throw them away as if they’re nothing. Look at you; you’re a young man. You’re strong… I know many young men who would gladly change places with you.’ Bentley – and Kember – make a stock kibbutzim tender-toughie a voice of moral authority.
All performances are exemplary. McArdle Yorke and Bentley are first-rate, with Whittle authoritative and compelling in the biggest role; his set-speeches spring from him as if long-pent. Braun though in a smaller role, conveys exquisite loss in being shunted as merely dippy. Joy radiates fierce honesty and fiercer desire for real love, and scorches 100 degrees across the stage.
Kavanagh and Artistic Director Neil McPherson have revived an enduring little classic of Englishness on the turn, out of the ideal-exhausted Seventies and on the edge of darkness. Finborough’s Fortieth looks set to enthral too.