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The Theatreguide.London Review

Finborough Theatre   Autumn 2015

The Yiddish Theatre flourished through Russia, Europe and America in the fifty years surrounding 1900, staging everything from Shakespeare to new plays in the language of the Jewish diaspora. 

David Pinski was one of its most prolific playwrights, and one of his biggest successes is here presented in a new English version by Colin Chambers. And some glimpses of the original's charm and comic power can be caught even in this badly misconceived and misdirected production. 

In one of those all-Jewish villages made famous by Sholom Aleichem, the gravedigger's son finds some gold coins, and when the lad's sister goes on an ostentatious shopping spree the villagers conclude that the gravedigger has a fortune. 

Soon everyone from the landlord to the Society For Providing Poor Maidens With A Dowry is beating at the door looking for a share, and when gossip says there is more gold buried in the cemetery the whole village is soon digging up everything but their ancestors. 

Two things should be evident from even that brief summary first, that the play depends enormously on local colour, the sense of a very specific time and place that is also tinged with the fairytale quality of fable. 

Just as some Irish plays have to be drowned in stage Irishness to work, Treasure absolutely has to be filled with yiddishkeit, an atmosphere vaguely akin to that of, say, Fiddler On The Roof. 

And second, it is clear that this is a satiric comedy, drawing its fun from the farcical excesses of the rapacious villagers and the inability of the gravedigger and his family to cope with them. 

And director Alice Malin seems to have missed both of those points. 

There is no indication in this production that anyone involved has ever actually met a Jew or for that matter, each other. 

Characterisations and acting styles range from twenty-first century middle-class British to broad cartoon, with no two people seeming to inhabit the same reality. (Indeed, they don't seem to listen to each other, taking their turns speaking their lines and then just turning off until their next cue.) 

There is more yiddishkeit in a couple of choreographed set changes than in the entire rest of the show, and the complete absence of a sense of fable is underlined by the failure of two specific scenes. 

Late in the play things stop cold while a young boy tells a mystical ghost story to some other kids, and at the very end the dead rise from their graves (a bit like the end of Our Town did Thornton Wilder know this play?) to comment bemusedly on the antics of the living. 

For those moments to fit smoothly into the play, the whole would have to be infused with a kind of magic realism that could absorb them, but here they seem to have wandered in from two other plays.

Meanwhile, seemingly sure-fire comic moments, like the family's reaction when the daughter returns from her shopping in her new finery, or when the parade of money-hunters file into the gravedigger's little home, or when the treasure-seekers swarm over the graveyard, either lie flat or are just cluttered rather than farcically snowballing. 

Which raises another problem. The Finborough's postage-stamp-sized stage poses challenges to every director who works there, especially if a large cast is involved. 

But traffic control is one of a director's basic responsibilities, and Alice Malin's actors are constantly getting in each other's way as they try to find someplace to stand. 

Olivia Bernstone brings an attractive spunkiness and charm to the starring role of the gravedigger's clever and ambitious daughter. Everyone else just looks uncomfortable.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Treasure - Finborough Theatre 2015

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