These Bad Jews are wickedly funny - but Little Miss America almost steals the show

Bad Jews, the West End comedy is at Cambridge Arts Theatre in November

Bad Jews, the West End comedy is at Cambridge Arts Theatre in November - Credit: Archant

Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, November 7. Review by ANGELA SINGER.

Jews are just like other people, only more so. That’s how we think of ourselves, as an intense race. Once we get the bit between our teeth, we won’t let go of it. Just look at the upheaval in the world caused by Jesus, Karl Marx and Freud.

Then there are the plodders, like Einstein and Bob Dylan.

This play doesn’t have to be about Jews though. It’s about drama queens and conflict and people who like playing mind games. The title would be different if it were Christians - bad Christians are just “not Christian”. Catholics aren’t bad, they are lapsed.

Harmon’s play has more than a nod to Edward Albee’s magnificent and riotously funny Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – not the miserable, mish mash made of it in the film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – but the play performed as it should be, on stage by four powerful actors, which is actually hysterically funny.

This play, too, has four characters, on stage pretty much all of the time. Two are tearing each other apart, the other two are caught up in the maelstrom striving to keep the peace but mistakenly pouring petrol onto the fire rather than foam. They fall into the pits the other two dig for them.

Set in a cramped studio flat in New York are three young Jewish students, Daphna and her cousins, the brothers, Jonah and Liam. The fourth person is Melody, Liam’s non-Jewish girlfriend. They are obliged to share a room for the night, after the funeral of the cousins’ grandfather.

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Daphna is a religious fanatic. Her name is really Diana but she has changed it because she thinks she’s an Israeli. She is scathing about everything that doesn’t fit in with her world view. Sometimes it’s with wit and panache, but it’s always searing – and it never, ever stops. She is a human machine gun. This is a tour de force of a performance by Ailsa Joy.

Where were your family before Delaware? Daphna asks the innocent and demure Melody who thinks it’s a genuine question and replies: “We have always been from Delaware.”

“No, you have not always been from Delaware,” Daphna hisses back. “Because if you were, you would look like a Native American. I want to know about your family life before the genocide.”

It’s late at night. Cousins Jonah and Liam (Jos Slovick and Daniel Boyd) both know that Daphna wants to talk about a piece of religious jewellery owned by their grandfather. They know that Daphna is going to fight with razor tongue and sharpened fingernails to make sure she gets it.

They also know that it has already been given to Liam by the late grandfather and Liam wants to give it to Melody as an engagement gift, just as their grandfather, who carried it through the Holocaust gave it to their grandmother because newly arrived in America after the war, he had no money to buy a ring. This is going to make Daphna go up like a box of fireworks.

Liam and Jonah try desperately to put the conversation off until the morning. But all Melody knows is that Daphna has something on her mind that she wants to talk about. So Little Miss All American Peacemaker (played to absolute blissful perfection by Antonia Kinlay who carries much of the humour of the play) insists that they listen to what Daphna has to say.

This is when the rockets go off. Daphna attacks Liam for wanting to marry out: “How is your half-Jewish daughter going to tell her quarter Jewish daughter about being Jewish? She asks. “This religion that we kept 200 years ago, 500 years ago and 5,000 years ago will perish now that it’s easier to be Jewish than it’s ever been.”

In the end, she says, we will all be the same people, wearing the same clothes going to the same shops, thinking the same things.

Melody intervenes: Well that sounds like that John Lennon song!

These are four brilliant performances. Jos Slovick and Antonia Kinlay as the milder characters are equally as brilliant as Ailsa Joy and Daniel Boyd as the two cousins at each other’s throats, one a religious fanatic, the other an atheist, snarling and sneering at each other, yet two sides of the same coin.

This is fast-paced theatre, it is riveting from start to finish. You cannot take your eyes off it these people. It is utterly absorbing and what the stage was made for. An intriging, mind-engaging, stimulating piece of theatre.