Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story review – klezmer life lessons

Wiltons Music Hall, London
The affecting tale of Jews escaping persecution to find new beginnings in Canada a century ago is a rollicking piece of folk music theatre

Old Stock is a pleasantly eccentric ode to family. Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s song cycle tells the story of her great-grandparents, who were Jewish refugees fleeing religious persecution in Romania. Serenaded by a klezmer quintet, we drop in on the awkward but persistent Chaim (Eric da Costa) and wryly melancholic Chaya (Mary Fay Coady) when they meet in Canada at the start of the 20th century.

Sweet and sparse, though somewhat anodyne, their sketches of romance shift from comedic to tragic. In each scene, one is unable to provide what the other needs: safety, certainty, love. But together, they muddle through. Loss and longing linger as their efforts to have a child remind the pair about the families they couldn’t bring with them.

Cheering Chaim and Chaya on is our erratic narrator, the magnificently bearded Ben Caplan, who created the piece with Moscovitch and the director and songwriter, Christian Barry. Caplan’s playful, didactic character goes by the name of The Wanderer, and has the air of an overly keen lecturer. With lungs as powerful as an ocean, his voice echoes an accordion, breath growling and rolling through octaves of Yiddish prayer and comedy song.

Captivating … Ben Caplan as narrator The Wanderer.
Captivating … Ben Caplan as narrator The Wanderer. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Though Caplan’s presence is captivating, his songs are meandering addendums that too often feel either dislocated from or directly repetitive of the action behind him. Heavy metaphors claw for universality when it’s the smaller details of the story that bury their roots in the past and push forward into the present.

They perform in an old shipping container; everything here is temporary. The doors are flung open to reveal a richly decorated, fabric-draped interior with a samovar centre-stage, Jeff Kingsbury on drums and Kelsey McNulty on keyboard and accordion. Coady joins them on violin and Da Costa effortlessly switches between instruments.

The emotional impact is somewhat dampened by restricting the lovers to their container; I long for them to leap outside with Caplan. Nevertheless, the peeling walls and cosy, romantic air of Wilton’s Music Hall are perfectly primed for a love story, and this warm musical is a reminder to look for the light in dark times.

At Wilton’s Music Hall, London, until 28 September.


Kate Wyver

The GuardianTramp

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