Thursday 3 October 2013

The Barrier

Park Theatre, London


Written by Sally Llewellyn
Directed by Kirrie Wratten

Jack Pierce and Antonia Davis

Set in London’s Stamford Hill, The Barrier sees an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family move in next door to a kindly and reasonable WASP couple who have lived in the road for years. When the Jews discover that the neighbours' infra-red security-floodlight beam can be activated in their household it causes much anguish. The rules of the Sabbath forbid them from creating fire or switching on a light and thus the beam is forcing them to break a commandment. Thus, in a bid to shield their property from the intrusive scanner, the bewildering Jewish response is to erect an oversized wooden barrier between the properties in contravention of both planning permission and neighbourly courtesy. From this religious and ethical dilemma does Sally Llewellyn fashion a play.

As it turns out, Llewellyn’s writing combines clever subtlety with clumsy naïveté in equal measure. Dominique Gerrard's Malka, the orthodox wife, is a well-crafted portrayal of a young woman who has become a mother to too many, too early and who is battling depression. Toby Liszt is her fur-hatted husband Shalev whose performance ranges from brilliant nuance to inept caricature. Blinkered by generations of sexist tradition, he is useless in his inability to address his wife's despair, struggling to recognise her as anyone more than just a homemaker and breeder of children. Hiding behind an almost childlike delight in traditional food and seasonal religious ritual allows him a denial of her mental illness that is sadly all too plausible. To her credit, Llewellyn’s take on the cruel compromises that the orthodox Jewish culture, whose traditions derive from the pre-revolutionary Russian shtetl, but which now faces a more modern existence in the diaspora, raises interesting questions.

This is a play that could arguably be re-named Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, as next door’s Cas (a good performance from Antonia Davis) is trying hard to be well meaning and tolerant but finds her neighbours' noisy traditions combined with her consultant surgeon husband's disinterest in her domestic responsibilities all too much to bear. Much like Malka, she too is struggling to stay on the rails. Jack Pierce is husband Sam, every inch the assured middle-class doctor who delivers a sound performance even if he's often given mediocre dialog to work with. And if all that seems like a nod to what often appears to be the impetuous writing of a well-meaning A-level English student, Llewellyn also throws in Cas' mum who lacks credibility as an ageing new-age Pagan complete with poorly fleshed out partner, the cynical Harry. Add in a foul-mouthed local neo-nazi who becomes violent when drunk and the set of clichés is almost complete.

The Barrier is at its most perceptive when highlighting a widespread emotional suffocation of women and in suggesting how England's famously tolerant attitude to immigration has been abused. When Nikos, a Greek electrician hired by Cas to adjust the offending scanner, tells her that Britain's problems of cultural integration are the fault of the English, because they have "let everyone in and they [the immigrants] take the piss", it's one of the most powerful lines in the play.

Llewellyn has identified some strong themes in her work, but ultimately it's a muddled piece that in targeting Orthodox Judaism has cowardly shied away from shining a spotlight upon other, perhaps more controversially extremist, faith groups. She shows potential as a writer but needs to focus her ideas, strip away themes that distract and allow her arguments a deeper and more measured analysis.

Runs until 20th October

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