Having started its UK life at the Ustinov Studio before successive London transfers, Joshua Harman’s Bad Jews has now returned to Bath as part of its national tour but this time having plonked its action onto the main stage. It’s another notch on the hugely successful producing arm of Bath’s Theatre Royal, even if I can’t help feeling the size of the space dwarfs the work, meaning the coruscating intensity which was found in the studio has now become a mid-level thrum rather than a cataclysmic explosion.
Throw three young, opinionated relatives into a cramped apartment for one long night, all full of emotion after their grandfather’s funeral and the temperature in the room is sure to rise. Chuck in a Hitchcockian MacGuffin in the form of Grandpa’s Chai, a medallion which Grandpa carried under his tongue for two years in Auschwitz and which now two of them want for vastly different reasons. It sets the stage for the kind of sizzling debates which we don’t see enough of on the modern stage.
Daphna, given a frighteningly intense performance by Ailsa Joy, is so orthodox that she is planning on moving to Israel after graduation and joining the army once she’s there, if only she can work out the immigration visas. She is political with a capital P and has a habit of zooming straight into a person’s weaknesses and dissecting them mercilessly. She wants the medallion as proof of her spiritual closeness to her grandfather and their shared Jewish heritage. It’s difficult to imagine a worthwhile challenger stepping up to the plate, but she finds one in the form of her cousin Liam (Daniel Boyd, son of former RSC head honcho Michael). He is a proud atheist, identifies himself as American rather than Jewish, dresses in a Clark Kent preppy style and has a blonde, “tepid little Bambi” in Daphna’s scathing description, girlfriend to boot. He wants the Chai to propose. The debates between the two tackle identity, faith and the Holocaust head-on. Harman doesn’t take sides and allows both arguments time to breathe, what at first seem like selfish reasons for Liam using the medallion to propose get flipped when he talks about what it represented to their grandfather. It’s penetrating and bold writing. Harman is clearly someone with a massive future who is already making a splash.
In the big proscenium, however, Michael Longhurst’s production plays a step removed. We listen to the arguments rather than feel them in our souls. The ideas are robust enough to grip but, unfortunately, it does create a night with less electricity than before. Still, the performances are universally strong; Joy makes Daphna a crusading soldier who masks her own insecurities about identity in the relative security of the bigger identity of her race. Boyd isn’t afraid to show the selfish side of the character while providing hints that there is a nobler man underneath. Jos Slovick grounds the piece with his turn as the brow-beaten sibling, who at the end movingly reveals that he is most spiritually connected to the past. It’s left to Antonia Kinlay’s perky, cheerful Melody to provide the most squirm-inducing moments, with her memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons rendition of Summertime. With all the heated arguments and scathing lines of attack being chucked around like grenades, it’s still in the smaller moments, in the shared awkward hilarity, that people are brought together.