Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London
Adapted by Saul Reichlin
Adapted by Saul Reichlin
There’s a lot to be said for one man who can stand on an unadorned stage and with a few well chosen words, a wrinkled brow and a beady eye, transport an audience away to another time and a place; creating an illusion, for over an hour, of the Pale of Settlement where the Jews of Eastern Europe once lived.
Unquestionably, Sholom Aleichem was the greatest Yiddish storyteller of the 19th century - some say the Jewish equivalent of Dickens - but here the credit goes to Saul Reichlin for his captivating performance, not only as Aleichem, but also as the twenty characters we meet on his journey.
We are first introduced to Sholom Aleichem as he travels by train to the fictional old town of Kasrilevke where he is taking a short holiday. Instantly comical, the play opens with writer Aleichem trying to explain to his fellow train passengers how one can make a living from writing. Ach! He must own a bookshop they deduce.
Almost like a guidebook, Reichlin vividly describes the hustle and bustle of the town’s train station. A mirage of images becomes spun into a hilarious adventure that only ends with Aleichem in a flea-ridden hotel, having lunch in a restaurant with no food.
Reichlin's portrayal of the townsfolk captures their self-deprecating humanity; people who amidst all of life's pitfalls and petty resentments, hide loving hearts behind their snarky words and wry smiles. We meet the wise Rabbi who strokes his beard and sucks the end of it, the paupers who grab a free ride on the tram (they have nothing else to do). There is Tevye the milkman (yes, that Teyve) all kvetching and complaining. Religion is everything to the eponymous dairyman; he looks to the heavens, shaking his fist to God; why does he have so much bad luck and stress in his life? But he respects God above all else, so there’s always a smile and a joke. This character’s life, like nearly all those we meet in Kasrilevke, may well be hard and heart-breaking but it is heart-warming at the same time.
Sholom Aleichem In The Old Country is at once charming, funny, sad and yet it is ultimately tragic. Not because of any serious disaster that befalls the characters, but rather because it offers up a taste of an innocent time, a small window into the soul of the Jewish people of The Pale, who don’t know it, but who are about to lose everything. Reichlin's and Sholom Aleichem’s characters may be ultimately doomed but their humanity and comedy leaves one feeling incredibly uplifted.
Runs until 25th November
Reviewed by Jodie Sinyor