Minnie Cunningham reviews My People, a Bristol Spotlights production.
It is Passover tomorrow, and Asha is returning home after being discharged from a psychiatric ward. Set in a family kitchen that, plaudits to the design and props team, seems much nicer than my own university accommodation, we become immersed in the world of Asha and her Jewish family. The setup of both story and pacing was pitch perfect, as mother Debra hilariously attempts to cook the family meal, following an intensely irritating youtube tutorial, and with every ring of the doorbell building tension as we held our breaths, suspended, for the next guest to arrive, wondering if it would be Asha.
Ella Margolin as Debra was the star of the show. A totally believable, heart-warming and at times moving performance, her monologue towards the end gave me chills. Jewish audience members (including members of JSoc) howled with laughter as they saw what one described as ‘literally my own mother’ potter around the stage. A few jokes were lost on us gentiles, but this is part of the play’s nature and, not accidentally I am sure, we sometimes feel like Toby, the atheist boyfriend who comes around for dinner (‘‘do you have any idea of what’s actually going on?’’). Oskar House as Eli brought contagious, puppy-like energy and came into his own in the song, sniffing his guitar like a maestro. Jacob Longstaff as the absent and messy father delivers an effortless and natural performance; at times he can be found cowering behind the washing machine from his ex-wife and the trouble he has caused.
The traverse staging worked well, however, as is almost inescapable with this setup, the nuances of facial expression were lost to half the audience – just exactly what Toby (Daniel Sved) felt about the family was lost on me for the entirety of Act 1 as I saw only his back. Disappointingly it was not only the staging that eclipsed Toby’s character but the play itself. The family loved him, Eli seemed to almost be obsessively, hilarious in love with him. However, just why they loved this slightly straight-edged, suited man was baffling – was this part of the joke? That he was rather plain? I don’t know. There seemed to be much more to be explored here and certainly more comedy to be mined through his lack of Jewishness that failed to be realised in Act 2. In the event of My People being put on again, this should certainly be developed, for both the play and the fine actor’s sake!
If the play had set itself firmly as a comedy, I would have undoubtedly given it five stars. However, the undercurrents of mental health were not touched on as much as the opening monologue (from Asha in the psychiatric ward) would bare to suggest. Asha (Eden Peppercorn) is presented as our leading lady, yet seems to become lost among the loud family drama that ensues. If we as an audience had connected with her in the opening speech, we were not satisfied by the change of perspective for the rest of the play. Furthermore, the final scene felt rather rushed and (without giving too much away) a few lines that teetered away from comedy into real emotional depth and metaphor felt slightly forced and out of place here.
This being said, writer and director Elliot Brett and his team deserve much praise for all they have achieved with this piece, and I would certainly go see this, or another of his plays, again. There are moments of true beauty and great acting; it was a thoroughly enjoyable show.
Image courtesy of Bristol Spotlights.