Thelma Ruby is a commendable 93 years old. She’s starred in countless West End Productions, worked with Judi Dench and Orson Welles, done everything from Shakespeare to Panto, and worked on television. She now returns to The King’s Head for her 6th production there, Momma Golda, adapted from William Gibson’s Golda with her late husband Peter Frye. With such an impressive portfolio and a lengthy career, you’d assume Momma Golda would be another successful role to add to the list, but sadly it isn’t.
Momma Golda tells the story of Golda Meir (Ruby), and is mainly set in 1973, at which time she was a Prime Minister of Israel, a country on the brink of another war. She takes phone calls, makes phone calls, meets with kings and diplomats and reminisces about her youth. She‘s headstrong, family-orientated, and spurts out the odd Yiddish proverb – she’s very much a stereotypical Jewish matriarch that we see so often on screen, but this seems to diminish the real Golda’s extraordinary life. Ruby is obviously an accomplished actor, but seems to hack away at playing Golda, ploughing through the thick script with little or short-lived emotion.
Co-starring is Sean Baker, another accomplished actor with a list of credits as long as your arm. Gibson’s original text Golda required 37 actors, Momma Golda has shaved it down to just two. How have they done that, you may ask? Well, they’ve got Baker to play a whopping 21 minor roles, including Golda’s father, her husband, her bodyguard, the Minister of Defence, and king Abdullah of Jordan, the latter being at best a lazy caricature in a Halloween-y costume with an ‘Arabic’ accent that keeps slipping into Scottish, and at worst horribly offensive and inaccurate. Most of these characters are given a little prop to signify who they are, and thankfully so, as without those we would be totally clueless as to who is who, because Baker fails to clearly distinguish between characters.
Baker also has a little trouble with his lines, consistently getting them wrong or forgetting them altogether in the second act. But can we really blame him when he’s playing 20 odd different people? In the rare moments in which he gets the opportunity to play a character for more than a minute, we’re able to see his real skill, but sadly he is uprooted from roles so often that there is no deep-set characterisation.
Ruby and Frye’s attempt to condense the original text does nothing for the story of Golda Meir. The odd attempt to mix humour and drama makes for an emotionally confusing plot, and the fast pace does an injustice to the actors. It has a strong cast and potential for a captivating story, but Momma Golda bites off a bit more than it can chew.
Momma Golda is playing at The King’s Head Theatre until 12 November. For more information and tickets, click here.