Sit and Shiver
New End Theatre Summer 2006; Hackney Empire Winter 2007
Reviewed first at the New End; scroll down for return visit to the Empire version.
Steven Berkoff's new play is a loving tribute to a dying culture, cunningly disguised as parody and farce.
It has all his signature elements - characters who float between painful reality and comic caricature, and a stylistic mix that swings from realism to farce to choreographed mime - but with a warmth and affection he has rarely shown before. Can the old lion be mellowing?
Jewish tradition calls for mourners to sit at home for seven ('shiva') days, receiving guests who share their grief and memories.
In practice this has become a catered semi-social event, Yinglished to 'sitting shiva.' The easy mishearing of that - 'sit and shiver' - has such an appropriate sound that it has entered the common parlance.
In Berkoff's play the departed is a father/grandfather, and the mourners include his daughter, a brassy Jewish-mother type; her henpecked husband; their somewhat secularised adult children (and the boy's gentile girlfriend); and relatives and friends.
Inevitably there's an unexpected guest, with revelations about the dead man that shake things up. But that surprise is just there to create the semblance of a plot.
The play's real purpose is to bring these escapees from an early Arnold Wesker play onstage one last time, to parade them with all their faults and foibles, and to love them just the same.
And it does so, in a warm, delightful, occasionally infuriating (How could it be Berkoff if it wasn't?), and theatrically vibrant way.
You don't have to be Jewish (though it undoubtedly helps) to recognise the hostess whose weeping and wailing is interrupted only to make sure everyone is eating enough, the unreconstructed Socialist who turns every conversation into an analysis of the class struggle but is so interesting that you don't mind, the poor shiksa totally out of her depth but fascinated by these people who don't pre-censor their emotions.
You do have to be open to overt theatricality to accept and enjoy the way Berkoff (serving as his own director) moves the performances at a second's notice from realism to parody to stylization and back again.
And, if you do happen to recognise yourself or someone you know, you have to be open to some loving satire. (One couple who left at the interval were heard to complain 'It's just a lot of people shouting. My family never acted like that.' Need I mention that they sounded exactly like the characters onstage?)
Berkoff fans will be delighted to discover that he has a softer side. Berkoff haters may find this the accessible way into appreciating him. And those who have never heard of him or don't care who wrote it can just delight in the warm humour and unforced drama.
January 2007: Steven Berkoff's celebration of East End Jewishness moves to what one might call its proper spiritual home, and his signature larger-than-life style proves even more effective in the large and lovely Hackney Empire than in the tiny New End Theatre.
There are a couple of cast changes from the earlier production, most notably the author-director himself in the relatively minor role of the father-husband in this grieving family.
But essentially this is the same production, allowed to expand and breathe in the larger space, embracing the audience in its warmth.
Refer to our original review above for a summary and description. The plot, such as it is, is an excuse to capture the vitality and tumult of an East End Jewish family - the traditional jokes, the passing under-the-breath insults, the stories heard a hundred times but listened to again with respect, the maxims or quotations for every occasion, the moments when eight people in a room seem to be having ten separate conversations, and of course the constant offerings and acceptances of tea and cakes.
Between these thoroughly realistic scenes Berkoff interposes stylised moments that make the social dance of greetings visual and freeze-frames that allow for a string of internal monologues.
And all is infused with a love of these characters who Berkoff happily admits are based on his own family and acquaintances.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the new staging is that Berkoff as actor does not steal the show and in fact, at least on opening night, gives a performance less assured and showy than any of the others.
The evening belongs to Sue Kelvin's essence-of-Jewish-mother and Barry Davis's unreconstructed Socialist uncle, with nice support from Leila Crerar as the Gentile guest fascinated by the emotional openness of this strange and exotic culture, and Louise Jameson as the unexpected visitor with a secret.
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of Sit And Shiver - New End and Hackney Empire Theatres 2006-2007