MOTHER COURAGE WITH A CRIMINAL TWIST
Yetta Solomon survived the Ukrainian pogroms when Cossacks raped and murdered her family. But they didn’t get her. Ten years old in 1919 she kicked, bit , scratched. “They set dogs on us. – I bark back. I bark louder!”. In London sweatshops as a refugee she skinned rats for the East End fur trade, scavenged rubber offcuts from tram tyres and carved shoe soles and bottle stoppers, raised her boys on a market stall. Now she will do anything to keep the family rubber business going, and the family itself together.
And when I say she’ll do anything, I mean it. No spoilers, but Yetta’s magnificent croneish ruthlessness doesn’t stop at jeering at her grandson’s dream of being a hairstylist (“Leo! Nat! We got a situation!”). Nor is it just a matter of double-crossing her feuding sons in a business deal, intimidating their wives , spilling lethal information true or false to get her way, felling a knifeman with a length of rubber tubing without breaking a sweat, or just barking “what are you, a moron?” down the phone to foam cushion clients while marking the price up.. But that is beginners’ stuff: once you really get Yetta going, major criminality is simply no problem. Not if it’s for the family! For their own good! because she knows best, how wouldn’t she, she’s a mother,? built up the business from a market stall, you gotta work work work, what do they know?
You could say that Ryan Craig’s salty, cunningly plotted and often unbearably funny family drama is tailor-made for Hampstead , with its hinterland of a long- established, doughty, opinionated, theatrically minded Jewish diaspora. And indeed it is a Jewish play par excellence, like a hypercharged Arnold Wesker with the pathos and respectfulness stripped out. Like, indeed, Craig’s earlier The Holy Rosenbergs at the NT, with Henry Goodman as a patriarch. It captures that survivors’ vigour, that intense family feeling laced with struggling fury as members try to make a dash for it.
But compared to matriarch Yetta, no male has a chance. And played by Sara Keatelman, a compact furious dynamo in a black headscarf, she is breathtaking: whenever Kestelman is offstage, away from the stock-cluttered rubber business or a tense family meal, you hold your breath. Because you know Yetta will be back any minute to upturn everything and regain supremacy. It is, so far,the performance of the year in its humour ,headlong vigour, and a subtlety which allows us to see that it is fear and memory which drives the stubbornness and manipulation.
But this is not just a niche play, reaffirming the legendary Jewish business hearth. Set between the mid-sixties and the booming Thatcher era it slyly becomes a state-of-England play: there’s a Nigerian illegal worker and her aggrieved husband, a neo-Nazi attack, infighting between immigrant generations (“Latvians don’t buy nothing, I hope they drown in their own soup”). The aftermath of WW2 is there too, and the way that ‘thirties survival morphed into ‘sixties ambition, and then ‘eighties insouciant greed. Leo, the favoured son (Dorian Lough) is sharp and thrawn, with slick hair and an eye for girls, and was a wartime hero; slower, angry Nat (Louis Hilyer) has retreated into choleric helplessness. Yetta found a way of keeping him home on the stall. The youngest generation are divided into those wholehearted about the business, and those who absolutely are not. The second act, in which a number of revelations excitingly unbuckle the strands of plot, see some spirited fights.
There are wonderful laughs, a tremendous coup de theatre involving fire, smoke and crashings (Hampstead loves a big stage moment). And that artful unbuckling of plots includes one line to remember for months. It comes, of course, from old Yetta in the 1980’s section. It just goes “I called in a favour…”. With a shrug. What a woman.
Box office 020 7722 9301 www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 22 April