The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, The Gate, London

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The Independent Culture

Robin Soans is a very good listener. He proved that a couple of years ago with A State Affair, a verbatim theatre piece based on his interviews with the residents of a Bradford council estate. Though it charted the way government neglect has turned the working class into the underclass in such areas, it never let you forget that the folk under the spotlight were individuals, who had to be respected as such, rather than sociological specimens.

Robin Soans is a very good listener. He proved that a couple of years ago with A State Affair, a verbatim theatre piece based on his interviews with the residents of a Bradford council estate. Though it charted the way government neglect has turned the working class into the underclass in such areas, it never let you forget that the folk under the spotlight were individuals, who had to be respected as such, rather than sociological specimens.

The same humane impulse - to put names and identities to people who can too easily get lumped together as mere two-dimensional bit players in a political crisis - animates his new play, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, which is the fruit of conversations he had in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank with private citizens as they prepared food.

There's an unstrident intimacy about the piece, a quality beautifully honoured by Rima Brihi and Tim Roseman's direction and by the multiple role-playing of a sympathetic cast, headed by Sheila Hancock. Pushing beyond journalism, the show takes you into the core of ordinary men and women as they struggle to go about their normal daily business in the scary abnormality of the intifada. An Israeli bus driver talks of his distress when he had to overtake a colleague's vehicle that had been blasted to bits by a suicide bomber and we hear how two women survived a supermarket's bombing because they were protected from flying glass by whirls of shredded loo paper.

There's little sentimentality here: for example, a feisty ex-New Yorker rails bitterly against the PC crowd who, as she puts it, have the gall to preach understanding to Israelis: "In the States, they're pushed out of shape for five minutes after the twin towers... we're living with this every single day of our lives."

Soans's play has a bottom-up approach that pays dividends, as is highlighted by the comparative failure of the strenuously top-down tactic employed in Protestants, a show by Robert Welch that sets itself the inordinate task of distilling the essence of Protestantism in one hour. There's no denying that Paul Hickey is portraying all the characters in a kind of ferocious one-man identity crisis, even if there's something slightly self-regarding and off-putting about the determination of this tour de force.

There is wit in the economy and resourcefulness of the transitions. Propping a circular-saw blade on his shoulders is all that Hickey has to do to transform himself into Elizabeth I. But the collection of characters - ranging from Martin Luther to a Glaswegian football hooligan - fail to add up to more than the sum of their parts, and the preachy coda about how Protestants are defined by protesting is in no danger of overwhelming you with its insight.

'Cookbook' to 10 July (020-7229 0706); 'Protestants' to 3 July (020-7478 0100)

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