It may sound like the set-up for a joke, but there's a distinct and recognisable feel to Canadian Jewish family dramas, whether on stage or screen or in novels by the likes of Mordecai Richler. They may get sardonic at times, but seldom truly mordant; sentimental, but not downright syrupy; downbeat, but not irredeemably bleak; contemplative, but not ponderously so. It's a genre that, like the donkey in the Irish saying, will go a little bit of the way with everyone.
Consider Adam Pettle's first play to be seen in Britain, Sunday Father at the Hampstead Theatre. Sports writer Jed is undergoing separation from his Gentile psychiatrist wife Amy; Jed's older brother Alan feels persecuted by their father, despite working to please him in the family law firm as Jed never had to. Over a couple of hours, Pettle's three-hander serves us childhood memories (including tape recordings of the young Alan and Jed's childish comedy routines), a custody battle, the apprehension of family history repeating itself, a handful of sharp one-liners ("What do you know from Prada?" – "I sued them once"), and bedtime stories from Greek mythology and Genesis that are clearly allegories on the grown-up storytellers' various tribulations.
Dan Fredenburgh, Corey Johnson and the admirable Raquel Cassidy turn in sterling performances in Rupert Goold's production. But it never moves beyond politely, passingly interesting, never attains magnetism or real potency. I suspect the set design may give a clue to the problem. Ashley Martin-Davis trucks on or flies in a whole variety of single-scene sets, from a bar counter to a hoarding advertising Archie Comics, in a way that could never have been done in the old "Portakabin" premises from which the Hampstead finally moved this spring; however, I wonder whether the inner life of the work has made the transition with similar flair. It strikes me that this piece of programming may still have had the old Hampstead in mind; that, adeptly designed as the new 500-seat main theatre is, the play would have felt more naturally intimate playing to fewer than 200 on the old site. As it is, Sunday Father is an affable, diverting, mildly stimulating experience; but, like Canada itself, it's all too easy to characterise it as being not quite a number of other things.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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