A Very Jewish Christmas Carol

A Very Jewish Christmas Carol
By Elise Esther Hearst with Phillip Kavanagh. Melbourne Theatre Company. Southbank Theatre, The Sumner. 14 November – 16 December, 2023

Lead Writer Elise Hearst and Phillip Kavanagh take the structure (more or less) of the classic Dickens story A Christmas Carol but make it the story of a Jewish family and their ghosts, via the clash of Christmas and the contemporaneous Jewish festival of Hanukkah.  They don’t have Dickens’ prose, but they tell a story that is much, much funnier, more real and way less sentimental. The jokes – ironic, sly, sarcastic, aggressive-but-affectionate and characteristically Jewish – just keep coming at hectic, noisy pace… until, suddenly, you find a lump in your throat – and the underlying meaning of it all is revealed.

Charles Dickens’ novella (that supposedly put the phenomenon of ‘Christmas’ into Christmas) has been told and retold, on stage and on screen. (Indeed, we are about to see yet another iteration on our stages here.)  It’s a sentimental redemption story: how Mr Scrooge, a mean and hard-hearted employer/exploiter becomes a kind and generous man after being shown the error of his ways - and consequentially his likely bleak future - via visitations by the Ghost of Christmas Past, of Christmas Present and Christmas Future. 

Here, Hearst and Kavanagh’s Scrooge is Ely (Miriam Glaser).  She’s not a hard-hearted exploiter, but she needs to change; she’s heavily pregnant, widowed – goyish husband Ben (Michael Whalley) was killed by a random bee sting - and still locked in grief.  A baker, she’s desperately, stubbornly trying to reproduce her dead grandmother’s Polish gingerbread for Hanukkah and Christmas.  But grandmother Bupi (Evelyn Krape) withheld the recipe and worse still, withheld the story of her past – the past of Poland in the 1930s, and why Bupi, without her family, ended up in Australia.  All Jewish people have ghosts and Bupi is Ely’s – frustratingly gone and out of reach.  Meanwhile, the bakery isn’t doing so well, and Ely has closed herself off from her loud, bullying mother, Fran (Natalie Gamsu) and her younger sister Sarah (Emma Jevons) – plus the new, progressive and inept rabbi Rivka (Jude Perl) and Ely’s intrusive, manic, Christian, mad-about-Christmas mother-in-law Carol (Louise Siverson).  Carol is resolute in just not getting it: she drags a Christmas tree into the bakery and claims ‘a little Jesus never hurt anyone.’

We have to feel some sympathy for Ely in the face of all this, but she’s just so palpably and determinedly miserable that something’s got to give…  And so the ghosts. 

Evelyn Krape’s Grandmother Bupi appears in glittering contrast to all the Christmas red and green.  She loathes Christmas and all that goes with it.  Krape gives that plenty of acerbic edge.  Later, there’s the brilliant physical comedy of her childlike gingerbread man Golem.  Louise Siverson’s Rein-dybbuk – a ragged, tatty, half reindeer, kind of bored with the obligatory task of being the Ghost of Christmas/Hanukkah past – is a surprise and a delight.  Their comedy is inventive, detailed and sublime.  They pack in a wealth of detail, and almost walk away with the show.  Experience shows; neither one misses a trick. 

Full tribute to Dann Barber’s costume designs for these characters too – and the Gothic number he gives to spooky Lilith (Natalie Gamsu again) later. 

And speaking of comedy, Jude Perl - songwriter, musician, cabaret artist and here Musical Director – is revealed as a great comedian both verbal and physical.  She gives us Rabbi Rivka, awkward, recessive but eager, well-meaning and tone deaf, with supreme clarity.  Emma Jevons darts about with appealing energy as the largely ignored kid sister who’s also the taken-for-granted fixer but who later provides a splendid sub-plot foil for Perl.

This is a show in which the collaboration between cast and so-called ‘creatives’ is outstanding.  Sarah Giles’ direction is tight as a drum – action and emotion never flag for a moment - things can turn from wisecrack to visceral pain in an instant - and she fills the width of the Sumner stage with huge skill.  Designer Jacob Battista – with Jonathan Oxlade - also takes that Sumner stage and locates the bakery firmly across it as well as suggesting – with Richard Vabre’s lighting – the street outside where ghosts can appear – as well as annoying but very funny carol singers.  Vabre’s lighting design is necessarily complex and dramatic, signalling the arrival of Ely’s ghosts and the transitions from past to present to future… and back to the distant but crucial past – the story Bupi never told.  Dann Barber’s costumes are all enhancements of character (look closely at Ely’s baker’s apron, Ben’s Christmas yarmulka, and the bright, warm colours of the costumes in the final reveal).  

A Very Jewish Christmas Carol has the full on and also throwaway humour of Jewish sit-com, but if in the end it’s a feel-good show, it dramatises how feeling good can mean acknowledging the past and how that comes at a cost.  Yes, there was a dramaturg – Jennifer Medway – but the writing here demonstrates a real assurance. Opening night standing ovations have become de rigeur, but with this show the standing ovation was clearly fast and spontaneous – the audience responding to the warmth, the humour, the emotion, the pitch perfect work of writers, cast, director, designers, et al.  At the end, the wish of Tiny Tim, from Dickens’ story, fits this story too: ‘God bless us every one.’

Michael Brindley


Photographer: Pia Johnson

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