It is wonderful to see London’s Menier Chocolate Factory open again and on form with Indecent, by Pulitzer-winning American playwright Paula Vogel. This is the story of a play: Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, written in 1907, which contained a lesbian scene – a fearlessly outlandish inclusion at the time. Asch was a Polish Jew and his play written in Yiddish. His work thrilled many and offended some – Jews and non-Jews – and only fleetingly made it to Broadway. The censored 1923 version, in English, was halted by the police and the cast and producer indicted for obscenity.
Vogel’s drama nudges close to being a musical. There is a top-notch klezmer band trio: clarinet (Merlin Shepherd), accordion (Josh Middleton) and fiddle (Anna Lowenstein) and their music is by turns playful, melancholic and rapturous. David Dorfman’s choreography is similarly fresh, a hybrid partly inspired by Jewish ritual. In the opening scene, the players stand in line and ash falls from their sleeves to the ground. Given the context, there can be no doubt what this doomed sight portends: each person an hourglass. Vogel, as she traces the play’s history, celebrates the heroic character of a troupe that went on performing right up to its own extinction.
But Rebecca Taichman’s sensitive direction (she won a Tony in 2017 for her more extravagant Broadway production) is not all ashes to ashes - there is gaiety too. The ensemble work appears effortless (the excellent cast of seven pull off 42 roles between them) and there are three standout performances: Finbar Lynch’s Lou, the stage manager, is quietly unignorable as the play’s critic and most loyal supporter. Alexandra Silber is stunning in a fascinatingly mannered way - her affectation almost a new dance form in itself – and Molly Osborne has an ingenue ardour that makes one fearful for her: gay pride before a fall.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set is dominated by a gold frame and his well-judged effects include the projection of the court’s judgment against the play across the set: the writing is on the wall. Throughout, the mix of simplicity and theatrical verve is heartwarming. The show was in preview when the pandemic struck and it seems just right that a play exploring the struggle for theatrical integrity should survive to tell its tale in such style.
NW Trilogy is a trio of animated, bite-size plays, developed through lockdown by Moira Buffini, Roy Williams and Suhayla El-Bushra, exploring the history of London’s Kilburn (where the Kiln is based) and the character of its Irish, West Indian and east African communities. Set in the late 1960s and early 70s (the era of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech), they seem almost in conversation with one another and music tenderly underpins all three.
We kick off with Buffini’s Dance Floor, an Irish yarn about two cleaners. Katie (livewire Aoife McMahon) is a Mrs Mop in stilettos. Aoife (gawkily spot-on Claire Keenan) is a wholesome girl from County Donegal who has run away from Ireland on finding herself pregnant and is a Val Doonican fan – she croons and cleans simultaneously. “No Irish” was a commonplace affront in those days yet the play unusually defies negativity. I had tears in my eyes at the end – via the unlikely intervention of a hungover Irish labourer (disarmingly played by Emmet Byrne).
Life of Riley, expertly conceived by Roy Williams, is about the reunion between a mixed-race girl and her West Indian reggae musician father who absconded when she was three. This wise and foolish rascal is tremendously played by Chris Tummings. Harmony Rose Bremner is equally beguiling as his daughter: jittery as if on a first date, thundery later, finally revealing herself to be a born singer. Musical genes subdue differences in this winning piece.
Waking/Walking, by Suhayla El-Bushra, ends the evening in the company of an engaging east African family. Deepak is proud, jocular and dejected after being made redundant (Ronny Jhutti excels in the role). Anjali, the mum (Natasha Jayetileke), has sympathetic grace and their teenage daughter, Meera (a convincing Anoushka Chadha), is trapped between duty and truancy. East African music leavens the piece that is, in part, about the right to protest. Highlights include a tea-time visit from Susheela (entertaining Rina Fatania) who proves a fearless consumer of biscuits and a hellraiser at the local factory. Spirited direction is by Taio Lawson and Susie McKenna and the set (Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey) comes complete with red phonebox and vintage street lamp – Kilburn as it used to be.
All the shows last week circled the same subject: cultural identity (the zeitgeist at work). East Is East might be described as the Pakistani paterfamilias of the pack. Ayub Khan Din’s much-loved hit was first performed 25 years ago and is back in Birmingham where it began. Dated in parts, it is undimmed in its energy with George expansively played by Tony Jayawardena as loud, lovable and culpable and still flailingly insisting on his right to be respected by his sons. Although married to a white woman for whom mothering seems a raucous, heartbreaking sport (wonderful Sophie Stanton), he is unconscious of his own hypocrisy as he arranges marriages for his sons with two ugly sisters.
In a world of banter and batter (the family runs the local chippy), the plot leaps out of the frying pan into the fire. The play’s domestic violence might be less of a footnote if the play were being rewritten today and, for better or worse, the youngest son, who lives in his anorak 24/7 and seems potentially to be on the autistic spectrum, would not, in this hyper-diagnostic age, go unnoticed.
Iqbal Khan directs this engagingly dysfunctional family with aplomb but the vast auditorium does the production no favours. Bretta Gerecke’s set valiantly offers grey snaps of Salford aloft and acres of crochet below but it is a stretch to fill the space. It is as if the cast were at a rally rather than in their own front room. Like the Khan family itself, the show needs to settle down, make itself more at home.
Star ratings (out of five)
NW Trilogy ★★★★
East Is East ★★★
• Indecent is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 27 November
NW Trilogy is at the Kiln, London, until 9 October
East Is East is at Birmingham Rep until 25 September, then at the Lyttleton, London from 7-30 October