A TRAGICOMIC BEAUTY
Hard to express how much I loved Stephen Karam’s play. Maybe it just hit the right moment: yomped through freezing night, strikes and ‘severe delays” reading about affronted sibling princes and the general sense of glumly compromised Christmases . And then in the first moments found I loved humanity again, having fallen heavily for Irfan Shamji’s Joseph. Here is a man whose lot is to repress irritation at a series of difficult but necessary people. There’s his fearful employer, the independent book-packager Gloria (who he later describes as “a wealthy deranged woman”, who he dare not quit because he desperately needs medical insurance for his crumbling knees, his athletic prowess suddenly lost.
She is needy and intrusive, wanting to exploit him for a book because she has read in the papers more than he wants about his Lebanese Maronite-Christian family, his mother’s death from cancer, their distant descent from the cherished sage Khalil Gibran and the fact that his father has just died after being in a car accident caused by a lethal prank by a lad who is nonetheless being allowed to continue the high school football season to save his scholarship. Juliet Cowan’s Gloria is a superb nightmare, played straight. Though we laugh. Painfully, and in sympathy with him.
Then there’s Joe’s younger brother Charles, damaged, dependent, stroppy, clinging on to the dead father’s faith, superstitiously obsessed with a saint’s icon sending him messages. And there’s equally enraging Uncle Billy, with whom the lad sits praying through the Rosary’s Sorrowful Mysteries (“I said I’d join him after the Scourging at the Pillar”.) The setting is Pennsylvania, where towns called Nazareth and Bethlehem reflect the tender old immigrant religion. Both brothers, by the way, are gay and Billy resents the fact that their family stops here. Young Charles in his sorrow wants to ‘reach out” to Vin, the prankster who caused their father’s crash. Poor Joe meanwhile, awaiting his full diagnosis on a series of even more irritating robotic phone lines, gets into conversation with a reporter, Timothy, whose preppy entitlement and gap-yah prattling about fashionable tragedies is to us as onlookers downright hilarious even while we feel Joe’s irritated helplessness. And, touchingly later, his helpless attraction to the affluent prat. Lovely exchange where Timothy boasts that his mother came from poverty and Joe snarls that he lives there – “it’s middle-income housing!”
Bijan Sheibani directs fast, fluently, in short almost filmic segments and minimal staging. and explodes it in the last ten minutes or so to draw the whole theatre into a televised debate at the school board about Vin’s sentence. Everyone risks boiling over, Uncle Billy howling furiously behind me on the steps and poor Joe, as so often, cringing up at the far side while Gloria declares her emotional pain over losing a HarperCollins deal and her very unwelcome desire to be part of their family.
All the players are flawless, Shamji a gem and Eric Sirakian’s Charles subtle and touching in his bonding with the boy Vin and his one real cry of pain at orphanhood and Billy’s decline. But its joy is in combining Chekhovian tragicomedy with light-touch commentary on many things: religion, media, brotherhood, forgiveness, neediness, emotional colonisation of other people’s griefs, and the cruel absurdities of American healthcare.
There’s even a dryly happy ending, publisher-fuelled, because as Joe observes “To make it in this country you either need to be an extraordinary human being or make a series of extraordinarily bad life decisions. All of us in the middle, we’re not worth so much”.
Oh yes you are. Sometimes the only people worth making plays about. Five mice, hurrah. Hijack a train to get there.
Box office hampsteadtheatre.com to 14 Jan. rating FIVE