National Theatre (Cottesloe), London SE1
Opened 15 September, 2005

If this show had been seen at, say, the Hampstead Theatre, playing to sort-of-OK houses and written by a half-known playwright, it would get so-so reviews.  But it’s not. It’s at the National, and its entire run had sold out before it even had a title, when it was simply heralded as “A New Play By Mike Leigh”.  Well, let’s not make allowances just because it’s been fashioned by the god of devised British plays and films.

Mike Leigh is best known for his sharp portrayals, at once caricatured and yet sympathetic, of a certain kind of folk.  Often they’re ordinary north Londoners.  In some ways this family drama inhabits much the same territory. Middle-aged couple, him a dentist; 29-year-old insecure, reclusive son; sardonic daughter; old curmudgeon father-in-law; self-dramatising, narcissistic sister.  The difference is that they’re Jewish.

The family in Leigh’s play are modern, secular Jews, more attached to the ideas of socialism than of kashrut.  When son Josh goes a bit religious (not Hassidic or anything, just the odd prayer), his parents grill him as if he’d just come out to them as gay.  Granddad Dave was an early kibbutznik, and daughter Tammy’s new boyfriend is a young Israeli. So there’s a lot to talk about. And they do nothing but talk.

In most of Leigh’s films and plays, stuff happens. Not high razzle-dazzle action, but enough actual events to propel the characters on some journey.  Here, nothing. Josh dons a koppel, gran dies offstage, two characters arrive for the second act, but that’s all.  It’s all talk, and rather less about family than British and Middle Eastern politics: socialism, Judaism, idealism, in fact an endless stream of -isms.

I may be your average chin-stroking Guardian reader, but even I wouldn’t want to spend all day, every day with living incarnations of its op-ed pages.  It feels as if the devising process never quite sparked, and Leigh found himself having to script the debate component with nothing to leaven it.  Only the arrival of Samantha Spiro’s keyed-up Michelle in the final half-hour enters classic Leigh territory.

Any new play by Mike Leigh is an event now: his last stage works in Britain were in 1993 and before that in 1981.  As a director, he’s a master of low-key naturalism occasionally escalating to fraught drama. But as a writer he’s a prisoner of his own working process.  If things don’t take off in rehearsal, he can only write up what’s come out of those sessions. And here it looks as if, sadly, things just didn’t take off.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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