The Glass Room @ Hampstead Theatre, London

cast list
Sian Thomas
Daniel Weyman
Emma Cunniffe
Fred Ridgeway

directed by
Anthony Clark
Few plays divided critics as sharply as Ryan Craig’s What We Did To Weinstein did at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year. For every plaudit thrown its way, there was a one star review of real critical bile.

I doubt his new play will prove quite so divisive – it’s just too middle of the road. Though it draws on contentious issues, the aftermath of recent Danish cartoons incident and the trial of David Irving, it’s too flawed a piece of theatre to really get under anyone’s skin in quite the same way.

Myles, a human rights lawyer who has trouble dealing with his Jewish heritage, takes on the case of Elena, a historian and academic, who is acing trial under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act for her denial of the holocaust. Myles initially takes the case because he believes in freedom of expression, but he gradually feels compelled to silence this woman, who uses cool historical detachment and a dismissive attitude to political correctness to mask her anti-Semitism.

The polemic-driven scenes between Myles and Elena are awkwardly interspersed with comic snippets of Myles’ relationship with his flatmate Tara, a journalist with a job at the Mirror, and his straight-talking dad. All the performers tackle the parts with gusto, particularly Daniel Weyman as Myles, but the play continually undercuts its own flashes of intelligence and passion with cumbersome plot twists and numerous credulity-testing moments.

The key problem is that the character of Elena, played with a studied coolness of manner by Sian Thomas, never really convinces; her arguments that the gas chambers never existed and were made up to gain Western sympathy for the Jews are so easily picked apart by Myles that it seems impossible to believe she was ever taken seriously as an academic (she is supposed to be a regular pundit on Newsnight). And the moment when he goads her into revealing her rampant anti-Semitism and racism is dramatically fumbled, and again arrived at all too easily.

The sudden unnecessary escalation of the relationship between Myles and Tara, and its subsequent fallout, is dealt with equally ham-fistedly by the usually reliable Anthony Clarke. It takes Fred Ridgeway, as Myles’ permanently aggravated father, to add some humanity to what often feels like a series of (well-worded) arguments, as he reveals how the grim reality of the horrors of the holocaust affected his family, personalising a play that too often feels like a debate on the implications of dealing with hatred through legislation and less like a drama with characters you actually care about.

Craig is clearly a playwright unafraid of tackling topical subjects on the stage, but this only works if it goes in tandem with solid characterisation and plausible plotting, both of which seemed to have been pushed aside here. The Glass Room provides plenty of meat for discussion but does so at the expense of providing a dramatically satisfying experience.

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