Divided they fall

David Benedict on Arnold Wesker's latest offering
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The programme for the world premiere of Arnold Wesker's play When God Wanted a Son quotes the Bishop of Birmingham remarking that "anti- Semitism has never been far below the surface of English life". Wesker made his name in the 1950s as one of the Angry Young Men writing a semi- autobiographical trilogy set in the Jewish East End. Forty years on, European anti-Semitism lends the idea urgency but his focus is closer to home.

Connie (Anna-Juliana Clare), a faltering young stand-up comic doing Jewish material, returns home to her frosty mother who is a) obsessed with money, and b) not Jewish. Her father, a Jewish academic whom she worships, walked out a long time ago, but upsets the wobbly applecart with his sudden reappearance at the end of Act 1, having been caught in flagrante with a student. The play's sole irony is that, despite the attractions and actions of this particular student body, he failed to rise to the occasion.

The family talk and talk but Wesker fails to dramatise the discussions. You long for silence in which words might resonate, or even some subtext whereby we could sense what they feel rather than having to listen to pages of angry argument. The play is obsessed with divisions. Connie keeps splitting the world into sets of opposing camps, "those that are clever and die, and those who are stupid and massacre them", and her mother finally admits it's "them and us". Alas, the dice are so loaded it's a struggle to care. The antipathies are so extreme - the mother, for example, is literally unable to say the word "Jew" - you find yourself wondering if they only married for dramatic purposes. Wesker certainly provides few explanations or routes for empathy.

Spencer Butler's clumsily staged production doesn't help matters. Connie has to speak the words of her hecklers, an awkward effect that becomes increasingly irritating, forcing Clare to break her own, rather than her character's, rhythm.

Both acts end with emotional outbursts, as if someone suddenly whacked up the volume. The unleashing of pent-up passion leaves us bewildered rather than moved. Given Wesker's public views about his current status within the theatre establishment, it's hard not to attribute the bitterness that underpins so much of the writing to a less than engaging use of autobiography.

To 2 March. New End Theatre, London NW3 (0171-794 0022)