A wig that can change the world

Cling to me like Ivy

The Door

Birmingham Rep

****

SAMANTHA Ellis’s bittersweet tale of tradition and values, love and religion gives a fascinating glimpse into Orthodox Jewish life.

We have nursery school teacher Rivka, all innocence and sexually naive played beautifully  by Emily Holt in her theatrical debut since leaving LAMDA last summer. She is planning her wedding and loves her sheitel. Sheitel? Do keep up, those are the wigs worn by married orthodox Jewish women.

She is the daughter of a rabbi, untouched by human - at least male human - hand and weighed down by tradition.

Her friend is the slightly, oh let’s be honest, lot more worldly Leela (Mona Goodwin) a medical student who is a Hindu - the relevance to be seen later.

Rivka is set to marry David (David Hartley) the son of a rabbi who rebelled and became . . . an optician. That’s really letting your hair down. He makes dull seem interesting.

COMIC, SAD AND INTENSE

Her father Shmuley (Edward Halstead) feels he always has to prove himself after becoming an Orthodox Jew later in his life while Rivka’s grandmother Malka, a wonderfully comic, sad and intense performance from Amanda Boxer, is all Chicken soup, warm humour and words of wisdom. She also has a colourful past which, like most things in this well crafted play, has a bearing on events.

Into their cosy world, where the women see life through OK magazine, comes both Patrick, (Gethin Anthony) an eco-warrior and tree sitter and a challenge to the established order when a chance remark by Victoria Beckham about hair extensions caused a worldwide Jewish crisis.

Beckham was asked if her hair extensions came from prisoners in Russia forced to shave their heads and she flippantly said she had half of Russian Cell Block H on her head.

Hardly a crisis you might think. But in the celebrity obsessed fuss it emerged 400 tons a year in the international hair trade came from the Tirupati Temple, a famous Hindu Temple of Lord Venkateswara located in the hill town Tirumala of Andhra Pradesh

WIG BURNING

Still wondering where the crisis comes in? Orthodox Jews consider Hinduism involves idol worship which is a big no no, second commandment, graven images and all that in the Decalogue; so that would make any wigs made from hair from a Hindu temple questionable under Jewish religious law. Hence the crisis with wig burning in the streets and Jewish wives and widows wearing synthetic wigs and swim caps until the matter was resolved by a London based rabbi who went to India on a fact finding mission then on to Jerusalem to make a decision.

Amid all this comes Rivka’s sexual and emotional awakening and to an extent a discovery by each of the characters as to what is important and who they are.

The set is a clever kitchen designed by Ruari Murchison which gives us two sinks, one for milk one for meat and never the two should mix,  all part of a life  most of the audience did not know existed.

TOUCHING MOMENT

There is a touching moment, literally, when Rivka pretends she has something in her eye and asks David to have a look - he can touch her for medical purposes apparently. It is a simple moment but one we all know is going to be important.

The set converts with a few hooks into a tree top where Rivka finds another world which will change her life for ever.

The climax is neither happy nor sad, it just is -  which is, in the end, what life is is for most people.

There are drawbacks for a non-Jewish audience with some of the words and terms, rather like watching a sport where you don’t know all the rules and have to work it out as you go along but it is not difficult to follow and the effort is well worthwhile. 

This is a world premiere and from its reception it looks like the play could well be around for some time. It is beautifully written, sensitively acted by a superb cast and well directed by Sarah Esdale. To 27-02-10

Roger Clarke 

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