Bad Jews, Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath – review

The rather dodgy phrase “bad Jew” is usually self-applied, apparently. You might say “I’m a bad Jew” as you bite into a bacon butty, for example – so long as you are Jewish, that is.

Poppy – unmistakably “good” – has died. After the funeral, his grandchildren – Jonah, Daphna and Liam – have to share a room. Melody, Liam’s blonde girlfriend, is also there – to Daphna’s distaste. Melody is not even Jewish; she’s “from Delaware”.

Conflict arises over Poppy’s chai. A Jewish symbol worn as jewellery, the chai – like Poppy – survived Auschwitz. And Poppy never left a will. So the kids fight over it.

Aside from bereavement, the main issue is whether culture matters. “People are just people,” maintains Melody, played by the witty, dippy Gina Bramhill. But Daphna (daggers-drawn Jenna Augen) would disagree. In her opinion every human is the product of thousands of years of history. Even Melody. Are we slipping towards “one giant, globalised corporate world”? And if so, who cares? Daphna cares zealously. Jonah (Joe Coen) and big brother Liam (Ilan Goodman) don’t seem too sure.

Bad Jews is often very funny. Nowhere more so than when Daphna dupes Melody, an “opera major”, into singing to her. A painfully funny clown routine ensues.

In the programme, US playwright Joshua Harmon says: “The comedy isn’t in lieu of a good story; it’s in addition.” He undersells himself. Here, the comedy isn’t some spare-limb accessory, but integral to the drama. Harmon and director Michael Longhurst (conducting the rhythm with expert precision), both know that the art of comedy – true comedy, not fluff – lies in the art of humiliation. The psychological cruelty can be hard to watch – yet harder not to, whether Liam is pouring scorn on Daphna or Melody is shrinking like a violet from Delaware.

Harmon’s language is vivid, raw, brilliant; his wit is vicious. And the ensemble, if rather arch, is very good, from Bramhill’s cute timing to Coen’s perpetually hangdog face.

It might be that Daphna is just too ratty – gnawing at everything – and this creates an imbalance dynamically; her vitriol mustn’t swamp her love. But Bad Jews is a brave comedy with tragically high stakes, which makes for excellent, moving drama.

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