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The Theatreguide.London Review

One Jewish Boy
Trafalgar Studio 2     Spring 2020

One Jewish Boy by Stephen Laughton takes a brave step in giving us a play whose dramatic talking point is intended to be the highly charged and important one of anti-Semitism.

Jesse (Robert Neumark-Jones), a middle class lad from Highgate in London, is brutally beaten in 2013 by a racist who makes it clear the reason is anti-Jewish prejudice. 'Hitler was right.' we hear the assailant say.

The trauma of what happened leads him to be especially sensitive to the rising levels of anti-Semitism in England and across Europe. It also leads him to be nervous of others, by for instance crossing the road when he sees a black man. and to become increasingly argumentative with his partner Alex (Asha Reid), a mixed heritage woman from Peckham.

If the description sounds promising, the actual script is weak. Most of its ninety minute length is a very lightweight, occasionally funny equivalent of an afternoon radio soap romance whose short scenes bob backwards and forwards in time, never stopping long enough to offer any depth.

Tacked awkwardly onto this is the bit about the anti-Semitic paranoia of Jesse, who talks about 'inherited trauma' and a half-dozen other notions that, according to Alex, make him sound like an academic. When she objects to their son being circumcised, he starts to accuse her of being 'border-line anti-Semitic.' No wonder she leaves him.

Actually, you could understand both actors leaving him, because he isn't a realistic character. His words are what the writer would like him to say, what it is safe to say, rather than what emerges fluently from character.

It’s also why this version of the play is softer than the earlier version at the Old Red Lion, where he was more arrogantly irritating and in one scene very critical of Israeli politicians. I’m not saying either of those changes shouldn't have been made. But the changes didn’t solve the character's basic problem of believability.

And of course even as a gentle political provocation, the play may still bother an audience. You can see some people perhaps worrying that it trivialises the issue of prejudice, that by suggesting Jess is paranoid, it gives racists a bit of a cop-out on something that is a real continuing threat.

Others who recognise that trauma can cause an overreaction to a very real danger in the community may still be irritated by a brief, rushed and unnecessary scene in which Jesse is defending to Alex his 2019 election campaign for the Liberal Democrats with his supposed need to get away from what he claims to be the toxic ant-Semitism of Jeremy Corbyn.

There are many people bewildered by the debate around ant-Semitism who react by trying to keep well away from the subject. And that frustrates those of us who would like to see it properly understood and strongly challenged rather than waved about like some scary flag. Maybe now is not the time when that is possible.

Certainly this slight romance, in its present form, doesn't come anywhere near what is needed.

Keith McKenna

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Review -  One Jewish Boy - Trafalgar Studio 2, 2020