One-man shows involving Jewish heritage must be like buses. One week after seeing the excellent Tailor of Inverness, an entirely theatrical and resonating production, now we’ve got Bubble Schmeisis, which played JW3 for one night. Nick Cassenbaum’s love letter to his Yiddish roots has a strong message about discovering your identity and preserving the past at its heart. Unfortunately, the piece of theatre it’s attached to is a bit of a mess.
Storytelling is key though, and this had lots of it. Cassenbaum recounts the time he and his grandfather visited the Canning Town Schvitz, a local Jewish steam bath, and on the way he thinks back over his upbringing. We’ve got Bar Mitzvahs, trips to Israel, even the obligatory Spurs match – all experiences have shaped Cassenbaum into the man he is today. The show feels over-long without really going anywhere. Looking back, the majority of Cassenbaum’s asides feel superfluous, as though they are there to deliver punchlines instead of adding anything to the overall story arc – this is basically a glorified stand-up routine.
Danny Braverman directs but doesn’t really add anything to this show that works on a visual level. The basis is Cassenbaum sitting in a chair and talking to us, which is a risky strategy unless you’re the most engaging person in the world. Cassenbaum has a natural charm but his timing can be way off. With comedy, the smallest gap in delivery can put the brakes on a performance, and this happens all too often. He also trips over his lines a few times, and although it must be difficult with friends and family in the audience, actors laughing at their own jokes is a definite no-no.
There are entertaining moments – a terrified audience member gives a practically naked Cassenbaum his Schmeiss (wash), to the hilarity of everybody else. It is a good balance of the funny factor and education on a topic that many audiences would have little knowledge of. Daniel Gouly and Tim Karp provide excellent musical accompaniment and are a great addition, especially their jazzy ‘Consider Yourself’ from Oliver! The best scene is the finale, with Cassenbaum standing on a table, yelling about the difference between pronunciations of “bagel”. It is a surprisingly rousing climax, that is intelligently written.
The problem is that Bubble Schmeisis is just one big contradiction. The overall message, that we should protect this warm, caring, family culture from dying out, is a very important one. The issue is that Cassenbaum and Braverman have aimed this show directly at the people who will agree with them, rather than tailoring the show to fit audiences of all backgrounds. Cassenbaum essentially plays to a big family gathering with lots of in-jokes, references and experiences that the rest of the audience understood, and thought were hilarious. I sat there very lost, very confused and very, very alienated.
In many ways it’s best to write about what you know, and Cassenbaum has done this in spades. The message is clear and emotive, and the stories are interesting. Issues arise when you have to separate yourself from your work and make sure it succeeds on an accessible and theatrical level – this wasn’t done here. If this is to go any further, a good redraft is in order, and it needs some life injected into it from Braverman. That being said, I promise to call them “beigels” from now on.
Bubble Schmeisis played at JW3 on 30 March, and will play at the Camden People’s Theatre in June. For more information and tickets, see Nick Cassenbaum’s website. Photo: Gence Barbar