I can’t say the promo posters for Bad Jews at St James Theatre pulled me in.
The man-on-woman, over-the-top, hair-pulling fight scene in the photos hinted at the type of lazy slapstick physical comedy I loathe, even if it has your average US sitcom audience rolling in the aisles.
Thankfully, the punch-up lasts all of a few seconds, and it’s Bad Jews’ vicious, occasionally shocking script (two ‘c-bombs’ in one play!) that delivers a far more powerful hit.
It starts slowly, with the sort of awkward dialogue between 20-something cousins Daphna (Jenna Augen) and Jonah (Joe Coen) familiar to everyone forced together with relatives during weddings, funerals and Bar Mitzvahs.
They’re similar ages, with blood ties, but literally nothing in common.
In the hours after their Holocaust-survivor Grandad’s funeral, Jonah’s pretty content with raiding the fridge and playing X-Box in his pants.
With her Hebrew name, Israeli army boyfriend, and plans to decamp to the promised land in the summer, ‘Super-Jew’ Daphna has little interest in anything unless it’s super, super Jewish.
When Jonah’s brother Liam (Ilan Goodman) arrives with cute blonde shiksa girlfriend Melody (Gina Bramhill) in tow, we’ve got four clashing personalities stuck in one claustrophobic studio apartment with no intention of even trying to remain civil as they argue over faith, tradition, and Melody’s seriously hideous treble-clef tattoo.
The ferocity of their verbal abuse is as hilarious as it is ugly, and a red-faced Goodman more than earns his spontaneous round of applause for an exhaustingly lengthy stream of bile aimed at Daphna when she’s supposedly out of earshot.
Both are so stubborn and confrontational that it’s pretty clear why they loathe each other – they’d never admit it, but they’re two sides of the same coin.
It’s no surprise that Augen received a 2014 UK Theatre Award for her performance.
She brings a vulnerability to the character that stops her being a monster.
You hate her for being so completely oblivious to other people’s feelings, incapable of opening her mind to their point of view, and downright racist to Melody.
But you hate Liam even more when he spits out that Daphna’s boyfriend is probably the figment of her imagination and she’ll never know what love is. She’s awful, but does anyone really deserve that from a relative?
The affected ‘likes’ between, like, every sentence, are like, a bit annoying, but pretty realistic for a 20-year-old New Yorker and you get pretty used to it by the second half.
Bramhill’s Melody is delightfully wide-eyed, vacuous and keen to please, providing welcome relief from the onslaught of meanness.
Her comic timing’s spot on, and a hilariously out of tune operatic cover of Summertime scored some of the biggest laughs of the night.
For most of the comedy, it’s easy to forget Coen’s on stage. The younger brother wants no part in the arguments, and is particularly keen to stay out of the row over his Grandfather’s necklace.
Both his relatives and the audience assume it’s just a 20-year-old guy’s general inertia.
When Jonah finally, quietly, reveals the true extent of his grief and his secret tribute to his family’s just-buried patriarch, it brings a tear to the eye.
Bad Jews is a thought provoking play that challenges the idea of cultural identities in an increasingly globalised world.
Writer Joshua Harmon treats the memory of the Holocaust with the utmost respect, yet recognises that survivors’ grandchildren understand and cope with its shadow in a lot of different ways – none of which are ‘wrong’.
Balancing big, serious, themes with an ample handful of laughs in all the right places, Bad Jews is not to be missed.
Bad Jews is at St James Theatre, London, until February 28.