Sit & Shiver, Hackney Empire, London

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The last time I reviewed a Steven Berkoff production, he sent me a letter that ended tersely, “You are banned.” But I am glad to have flouted his diktat, as this family drama is one of the freshest, most enjoyable Berkoffs I can recall. His portrait of an east London family sitting shiva for its dead patriarch (the title comes from a mishearing of the phrase for seven days of mourning) is infused with warmth and even sentimentality.

It is also light on the exaggerated, stop-motion expressionist movement sequences the writer/ director is so fond of – at least for the first half. This is because, in Act One, nothing much happens: the deceased Monte Hyman’s family and friends talk – about him, about tailoring, about each other and quite often about tuchuses. (The banter is rich in Yiddish, almost to the point of ostentation.)

When something does happen – Monte’s long-time shiksa lover Mrs Green (Louise Jameson) presents herself, to shocked incredulity – it happens Berkoff-style, and the family’s responses are once more acted out in characteristic idiom. Even here, they become more palatable for serving as affectionate cartoons rather than slipping into Mr B’s more confrontational mode. The man himself is so self- effacing in performance as Monte’s son-in-law Lionel that a relative’s description of him as “a flea” is almost plausible.

Sue Kelvin excels as Lionel’s wife Debbi, the self-appointed guardian of Monte’s memory; she makes full (occasionally too full) use of her impressive lung-power. Barry Davis is also impressive as Sam, an old-fashioned Jewish Marxist whose blindness has not impeded his fervour. The writing – which sounds, unusually for Berkoff, to be in prose rather than verse – sometimes verges on the hackneyed in its core observations about truth and generosity, but its beating heart carries us through such moments to the next burst of vitality.

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