Review: Kvetch – An American Play About Anxiety

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There is nothing funnier than other people’s suffering, so they say, and this bittersweet comedy from Steven Berkoff certainly capitalises on that. Following the mundane ups and downs of a New York Jewish husband and wife, her mother, her lover and his friend, this show manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving.

The first half is nothing short of brilliant. Perfectly judged in script, direction and delivery, the hour flies by. Berkoff’s script, liberally scattered with asides, is a thing of genius. Every word rings true – even if we’d rather not admit it – and the characters reveal their fears, their foibles and their weaknesses to the audience while desperately trying to keep them hidden from each other. This also sets up the funniest three-way sex scene you are likely to see in a theatre this year. The dinner party which opens the play is a squirmy masterpiece in observation: each character speaks out loud, while breaking off to share what they really think inside with the audience. In this way, Frank’s (Josh Cole) attempts to tell a joke that takes about ten minutes as he meanders through all the possible reactions and implications of telling said joke, and yet Berkoff’s words – in the deft hands of director Julio Maria Martino – never feel drawn out.

Dagmar Doring as Donna, Frank’s unappreciated wife, is a study in understated suffering, while under the surface she seethes and kvetches. Melissa Woodbridge (as Donna’s mother) has few lines and a slightly dodgy Russian accent, but is hugely entertaining. However, the first half (indeed, the whole show) belongs to Dickie Beau’s fantastic, dithering Hal. Riddled with self-doubt, nerves and an acute awareness of his own failings, Beau embodies Hal in a way that invites laughter without cruelty, and keeps the pathos well on the right side of sympathy without becoming either pantomimic or destroying the careful balance of the show.

The mask-like make up and face paint was a risky choice from Martino (and beautifully done by the multi-talented Beau), but one that paid off. The painted-on faces served to emphasise specific characteristics and moods, especially during the uninhibited asides. The set couldn’t have been simpler, but the cast played with it and within it very well. The dynamics of the first half were perfectly pitched and well-judged, veering away from hysteria (although Cole got a little close to it as times – he could do with exploring some of the levels in between calm and shouting) and towards a recognition of a shared fear of social failure and embarrassment.

The sharp-eyed amongst you will have have noticed by now that I have referred only to the superb first half. Unfortunately, there is a reason. I really hate to point the finger in this way, there was one reason why the second half was less successful, and that reason is Christopher Adlington. The other four managed to keep their mannerisms, twitches and quirks within the bounds of believability. Sadly, mis-cast Adlington (as business man and Donna’s lover, George) simply did not. His booming presence totally overshadowed the nuanced performances of those around him – poor Cole really struggled in his scene with Adlington because the latter’s manner was so over-bearing, and out of place. Where the others pulled off the stylised grimacing and bitching, Adlington never looked comfortable in his too-tight suit, and was a distraction rather than an asset. All of the accents (apart from Doring) were slightly all-over-the-place, but Adlington’s veered from Irish to English to Jamaican, without ever quite hitting New York. In such a small theatre, Adlington was a hopelessly large presence.

However, when the marvellous Beau re-appeared, his four lines as a waiter were so brilliantly delivered that they began to erase memories of the previous scene, and the show found its feet again. The second half never quite matched the first for energy or humour, but it picked up. The ending (which I won’t spoil) is a little too neat to stay within the realms of reality, but is satisfying nonetheless. If the show had ended at the interval (which it actually could have done, plot-wise) this review would have been an unqualified rave. As it is, my dislike of parts of the second half did not taint my enjoyment of the first, and I have not laughed so much in a theatre for a long time. Definitely a show to see – and bravo to the King’s Head for resurrecting this gem – but it’s a shame that the ensemble were not all hitting the same exceptionally high standards.

Kvetch plays at The King’s Head Theatre until 4th November. See www.kingsheadtheatre.com for dates, times and tickets.