The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2017
There was a time in the 1980s when this veteran character actress was a member of the National Theatre company and you got to see her in three or four plays a year.
Finding her name in a cast list was always a delight because you knew that, whatever the size of her role, she'd be the best thing in the show. She brought a solid, multi-faceted reality to every part she played, usually finding colours to the character you wouldn't have expected even if you read the play.
She's done lots of great work since, and here playwright Ryan Craig and director Edward Hall give her the role of a lifetime.
And, boy, does she fly with it.
Kestelman plays Yetta Solomon, the matriarch of an East End Jewish family, founder and power-behind-the-throne of the family business of cutting and selling foam rubber for cushions and the like.
Yetta has two supreme values in her moral system, surviving and keeping the family together, and she recognises no other moral laws.
To achieve her twin ends she will flatter, cajole, bully, lie, manipulate, blackmail and anything else it takes. She will betray confidences, pit her two adult sons against each other so neither will become strong enough to threaten her power, take turns emasculating them in subtle and vicious ways, and actually maim each of them to keep them tame.
She recognises no law, no loyalty and no emotional bond that stands in her way. She is a monster of Shakespearean proportions, and even the most jaded in the audience will find themselves shocked by one or another of the atrocities she calmly commits.
Sara Kestelman captures all this in a performance of intense malignant energy. But she and director Hall also recognise that such shameless evil combined with such invention and artistry is dramatically fascinating and irresistible.
And as horrified as you may be, you will find yourself embarrassedly admiring and enjoying this lovable old rogue. It's the Richard III Effect.
Kestelman plays the audience like a virtuoso, manipulating us as shamelessly as she does everyone onstage, and it is a thrill and delight to be in the hands of such an absolute master.
Filthy Business is not a one-woman show. Louis Hilyer and Dorian Lough register strongly as the sons fighting for their manhoods, and Callum Woodhouse as the grandson who comes closest to escaping.
(Only the other women's roles – the two sons' wives, a granddaughter, and a potentially interesting African immigrant employee – are so underwritten that the actresses can't do much with them.)
And the play doesn't quite achieve its goal of reflecting the world outside the family. The action covers over a decade, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. But except for a couple of secondary characters who go away and come back different, there is no real sense of time passing or of social changes outside the family impacting on them in any way.
No, the strengths of Filthy Business lie in the playwright's creation of Yetta Solomon, and in Sara Kestelman's magnificent performance – surely a candidate, this early in the year, for actress of the year.
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