Emily Holt, Mona Goodwin, Amanda Boxer, Edward Halstead, Gethin Anthony, David Hartley
The intricacies of Jewish Law isn’t a subject you’d expect to dominate a contemporary play which is set during the inception of WAG culture, but Samantha Ellis has managed to breath life into a potentially dusty area, producing a play as intimate and charming as its venue, in the Birmingham Reps Door Studio theatre.
In the same vein as the Reps production of East is East at the tail end of 2009 this is a comedy, in part, concerned with cultural differences and the struggle to maintain an identity for second generation migrants.
Through the solid direction of Sarah Esdaile the play achieves the same kind of demystification of Jewish Orthodox culture that Khan-Dins play achieved with the Muslim faith in 1996, by setting events in the one place all households have their emotional warfare, no matter what religion or creed: the kitchen.
The play opens with a scene of a bride being fitted for her wedding dress by her grandmother. They gossip and poke fun at the ‘celebrity bible’ OK! Magazine. Its 2004 and Posh and Becks marriage has hit a rough period, just as 21 year-old Rivka (Emily Holt) is getting her dress and sheitel (a wig worn by married orthodox Jewish women) prepared for her own big day. She is set to marry David (David Hartley), an earnest and hardworking son of a local rabbi, who, everyone assures her, is her perfect match.
When her community is thrown into chaos over the origin of the human hair used to make Jewish wigs, Rivka is forced to question the seeming perfection of her own life, and after she meets Patrick, a wayward environmentalist, the play takes a much darker turn.
The themes are fairly familiar. Love verses duty; sex, rebellion and faith all framed nicely with the re-emergence of the sheitel as a potent symbol. Rivka’s sexual curiosity grows and she cheats on David with Patrick. This scene is handled with maybe a little too much sensitivity and has more of the tone of teen movie romance than of a youthful sexual rebellion. This is no criticism of Holt whose stunted Rivka is stroppy, adorable and spoilt and it makes she makes it almost impossible not to side with her despite her sometimes selfish decisions.
Theatrical debutant, Holt, and Amanda Boxer have a great on-stage relationship, really giving punch to Ellis zingy text. Boxers Malka, the outspoken Jewish grandmother, is the play’s obvious comic outlet and she makes the most of the script’s potential for humour while remaining convincing in the play’s final scenes, when her character’s traditional side emerges.
The main source of anger and rebellion actually comes in the form of Rivkas soon-to-be husband, David, who questions the rules and the reasoning of Jewish Law. Hartley summons up a great amount of sympathy for his character, despite his ‘stuffed shirt’ quality.
Played out in a three short acts, with clear dividers, the whole piece is set to Simon Slaters straining oboe, music that crawls up the audience’s spines and creates an air of uneasiness in the later scenes.
As in life there are no clean endings and the abrupt close to the play gives the audience little comfort. The theme of sacrifice hangs in the air though and gives extra weight to what is, on the whole, a witty comedy that lifts the curtain on a culture alien to many. Though Esdaile and the entire cast do solid work, it is the warmth and strength of Ellis charmingly quirky play itself that you take away with you. She’s clearly a name to remember.
Cling To Me Like Ivy will be at Birmingham Rep until 27 February 2010 and then touring throughout March.