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The Theatreguide.London Review

Bar Mitzvah Boy
Upstairs at the Gatehouse  Spring 2016

An object lesson in the principle that not everything wants to be a big brassy West End musical and that sometimes smaller is better, this musical adaptation of Jack Rosenthal's award-winning TV drama of the 1970s, which flopped back then, proves much happier and much more successful in a more suitably-sized new version and venue. 

Rosenthal wrote the original musical book, with songs by Jule Styne and Don Black. Since then David Thompson has tinkered with the plot a bit, Don Black has revisited and polished some of his lyrics, songs that were dropped from the score have been brought back and others eliminated. 

The result is no masterpiece, but a gently enjoyable mix of wit and warmth. 

A London Jewish family caught up in the frazzled preparations for The Social Event Of The Year don't notice that the star of the show, their thirteen-year-old son and brother, is actually taking the becoming-a-man part of the ritual seriously and isn't sure whether he's ready to be a man or what kind of man he is to be. 

The contrast between their immersion in trivia and his earnest reaching for meaning makes up the core of the comedy and drama. 

Director Stewart Nicholls and his cast have fun with the comic characters the near-hysterical mother, phlegmatic father, and the like but one of even this revised version's limits is that they are written as single-dimension stereotypical caricatures and the actors have been encouraged to play them that way. 

Sue Kelvin is hilariously over-the-top as the mother, for example, Robert Maskell absent to the point of near-invisibility as the father, and Nicholas Corre the essence-of-born-loser as the sister's ineffectual boyfriend. 

But after a while you begin to wonder if these and the other characters would really have been hurt by being allowed just a hint of roundness or reality. 

No such doubts can be raised about young Adam Bregman, making his professional debut in the title role and amazingly the same age as the character he's playing. 

He sings effectively, acts movingly, holds the stage like a veteran, and brings us fully into the heart of the young boy asking very big-boy questions all without the slightest hint of child-actor cuteness. 

Indeed, partly because Bregman gives such a strong performance, a hole in the plot looms larger than it might otherwise have. 

Without giving too much away, let me just say that a happy ending is achieved essentially by dismissing some of the boy's concerns as trivial, and our emotional connection with Bergman's characterisation may make it hard to write him off so blithely. 

Meanwhile the Styne-Black songs are always serviceable, if too rarely more than that. 

Black's lyrics are frequently very witty, but a secondary ballad, You Wouldn't Be You, is a better song than the one obviously meant to be the big number, The Sun Shines Out Of Your Eyes. 

It would be wrong to overpraise this gentle little show and raise expectations too high. It is what it is a small and frequently delightful chamber musical with one remarkable performance at its centre.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Bar Mitzvah Boy - Upstairs at the Gatehouse  2016

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