James Sherman’s light-hearted, sweet romantic comedy has been a huge hit Stateside for years, yet this is the first time it has been produced in the UK, writes Caroline Bishop. The playwright himself was in the Hackney Empire audience to see how the Jewish humour went down in London, in this premier production directed by the Empire’s pantomime veteran Susie McKenna.
McKenna may be known for her rambunctious festive fare, but with Beau Jest the director shows a subtler side as she tackles a piece which is touchingly innocent in its scenario, gentle in its humour, and heart-warming in its conclusion.
Set in 1980s Chicago, this play in three acts follows the story of kindergarten teacher Sarah Goldman, whose desire to please her loving parents gets her into a bit of a romantic pickle.
The play opens with Sarah chatting to Bob, who we would assume is her boyfriend – that is, until her real boyfriend Chris turns up at the door. Bob, in fact, is an escort from the Heaven Sent agency, who Sarah has hired to impersonate a Jewish boyfriend. All because Chris’s gentile status doesn’t impress Sarah’s parents – so she told them she broke up with him. But they are coming to dinner, you see, and want to meet Sarah’s new boyfriend, who she invented to avoid her mum’s matchmaking attempts. But just as they arrive, Sarah finds out to her horror that Bob, who she thought was Jewish, actually isn’t.
It may be a tad unrealistic, but it is easy to suspend disbelief and indulge in the easy humour of this Friends-style sitcom set-up, which paves the way for an evening of misunderstandings, Jewish in-jokes and familial relations. Actor and escort Bob – under the assumed name Dr David Steinberg – enjoyably veers his way through the minefield of dinner with Sarah’s parents, narrowly convincing them of his status as a surgeon (hearts, brains, everything really), while Sarah nervously flaps about, sure they are about to be found out. During the course of this and subsequent family gatherings, Bob and Sarah begin to fall in love for real.
The humour and customs may be Jewish – a Seder meal is even performed on stage – but that makes it no less enjoyable for a gentile audience. Sue Kelvin’s larger-than-life Miriam – all purple velour tracksuit, orange hair and gold jewellery – is more than recognisable to anyone with a matchmaking mother, as is the circular bickering between Miriam and well-fed husband Abe (Jack Chissick). Lara Pulver plays Sarah as a sweet, demure young woman who is just trying too hard to please, while Adam Rayner relishes the comedic role of Bob/David.
While the scenario is farcical, the production always stays the right side of ridiculous. Likewise, designer Becs Andrews alludes to the 80s setting without being too obvious – an Athena poster here, a Lycra mini-dress there. There is nothing brash about this play (apart from Miriam’s clothes); rather, it is a gentle comedy which allows an evening of escapism to a previous, more innocent time.