Bar Mitzvah Boy at Upstairs at the GatehouseCultureTheatre
Brought back to the stage by Stewart Nicholls, having last been performed in 1978, Bar Mitzvah Boy is fun and heart-warming but lacks the creative flare and originality needed to make it a hit.
It is a play with music rather than a clear-cut West End-style musical: music emerges out of the action. But the songs feel incongruous to the action. The best moments are when traditional Jewish music is played, evoking the culture on stage; perhaps even music unique to the 70s would have been an improvement on the repetitive melodies used. The prerequisite of a good musical is to create songs that stick in the head, even if they are annoying. Unfortunately they do not here – they all merge into each other. At times the music destroyed the atmosphere the set, costumes and acting created. Rosenthal, the author of the book of the same title, criticised the 1978 version, believing the intimate story of a boy running away from his Bar Mitzvah had been lost in the slick Broadway style. This criticism is still relevant for this revival. Whilst the story of Eliot Green is at the forefront, the musical theatre elements prevent the play from forming a deep emotional engagement with the audience.
There are good aspects: the staging is original, considering the restraints of space, particularly in the scene where it is transformed into multiple bedrooms, demonstrating the ingenuity of the set design. The technique of freezing the action on stage and focusing on one character is on the whole done well, but it is disadvantaged by the intimate theatre, which means the crowd can see even the slightest wobble. The acting is generally impressive, especially Sue Kelvin who captures the neurotic character of Eliot’s mother perfectly. Robert Maskell perfectly reproduces the mannerisms of a Jewish father without falling into the trap of parody. Equally Hayward B Morse, whilst only having the minor role of the grandfather, displays a comedic wit that perhaps gets the most laughs from the audience. Adam Bregman (Eliot Green) is sensitive and believable, but at times it does feel as though he is reciting from a script.
This play will appeal to adolescents and children; it may leave adults wishing for more, in especially in terms of depth of characterisation. Having said this, it is fun, and it is universally relatable, humorously following a boy’s journey to adulthood. Whilst it is slightly too long, it has its charms. If you want something lighthearted and not too expensive, this is the production for you.
Bar Mitzvah Boy is on at Upstairs at the Gatehouse from 3rd March until 10th April 2016, for further information or to book visit here.