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A CurtainUp London Review
Dreyfus the Comedy

By Lizzie Loveridge

Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre is a modern but cosy theatre and cinema complex, newly renovated thanks to Lottery money and charitable donation, and one of London's important Fringe venues. The auditorium is a small studio space with seating on three levels round three sides of a square. There is a café, with tables in a non-smoking gallery with paintings for sale and a bar. Most importantly, its programme is always worth a look, This new comedy by Jean-Claude Grumberg being a case in point. Jack Rosenthal, a witty writer best known for his television dramas has given us a translation that is fresh, funny and flows as if it were written in English.

Dreyfus the Comedy uses the story of the Dreyfus scandal in France in the 1890s to illustrate anti-semitism in Europe in the 1930s. (For those unfamiliar with the case, Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew, a French soldier who was falsely accused of spying for Germany in a massive scandal. He spent years in prison on Devil's Island. Emile Zola spoke out for Dreyfus and was himself prosecuted for his J'accuse letter. The scandal involveded many at the very highest levels of the French military and government were implicated in the scandal).

The play takes place in Poland in the 1930s, in a community hall where rehearsals are taking place for a serious historical play. Maurice, the director, has a political and educational agenda. He is using the Dreyfus story to increase awareness of the situation of Jewish people in France, and in Europe as a whole. His motley crew are Matel, the tailor; Arnold the actor, who like Bottom wants to play every part; Zina his wife; and Michael, a shy youth who seems ill cast as Captain Dreyfus but who finds love with Arnold and Zina's intelligent and pretty daughter, Miriam. There is a series of delightful sidetracking scenes as everyone puts their spoke in to suggest how Michael (Joshua Levine) might improve his performance.

Arnold (Harry Towb) suggests more song and more romance to please the audience.

Zina's (Doreen Mantle, a fine comedienne) long speech, to create the part of Dreyfus' mother, "Don't become a captain, it's no job for a Yiddisher boy!" is full of ironic, sardonic and self deprecating humour. Through the comedy a discussion starts to emerge on the perceived differences between French Jewry, and the Jews in Poland and Russia subject to the pogroms. When the a Swiss Jew named Wasselbaum (James Woolley) comes to give a lecture on a Jewish homeland he receives as many differing pieces of advice as there are people in the hall. He never gets further than what would be the best start to his lecture, "Good evening Brothers", or just "Brothers", or "Friends". Everyone has an opinion but noone ever comes to grips with the main topic.

In the second act, Arnold and Zina discuss the Dreyfus case. There is an inherent but misplaced faith in French justice or maybe just a lack of awareness. It is easy to say this from our perspective today. Zina says of Dreyfus, "He must have done something a little bit wrong . . ." In a lighter scene, Michael tries on the uniform made by the tailor (Jon Rumney) in surplus red cloth rather than the authentic blue, again the subject of many words. The scarlet wool and gold braid make Michael look like a circus ring master. This scene leads to a riot when two Polish louts attack the hall and we have spectrum of reaction, whether to hide or pacify or fight as Michael finally acts the soldier.

The performances are in the main from seasoned actors. All make you know their characters. Nicholas Kent's direction has a naturalness of ease. Poppy Mitchell's country predominantly wood set with Hebrew notices pinned to the walls provides the right atmosphere. Incidental Jewish folk music adds atmospheric depth.

The more I think about this comedy, the more satisfying I find the subtlety with which it makes its larger political points. In a final scene, set a year later, Maurice writes from the Warsaw Ghetto where he has found comrades and communist ideology. There is heavy irony as we hear that Michael and Miriam are living in Berlin and are told, "There are a few trouble makers there, but you can always reason with the Germans."

Written by Jean-Claude Grumberg
In a new translation by Jack Rosenthal commissioned by The Tricycle
Directed by Nicholas Kent

With: Joshua Levine, Jon Rumney, Max Gold, Harry Towb, Doreen Mantle, Martin Friend, Sarah Mark, James Woolley, Ian Peck, Steven George.
Design: Poppy Mitchell
Lighting Design: David Taylor
Running time: Two hours ten minutes with an interval
The Tricycle, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR (Tube Kilburn)
Box Office: 020 738 1000
Booking to 1st July 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th June 2000 performance at the Tricycle, London, NW6.

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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