THEATRE / Voyage of the accidental tourists: Paul Taylor on The Ash Fire, by Gavin Kostick, at the Tricycle, London

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The Independent Culture
IT'S 1935 and on the way to America with thousands of other East European Jews, Nat and Cissy Katzmeir jump ship at dead of night to find that they have landed not in New York, but in Cobh Harbour in Ireland. It sounds such an 'Irish' thing to have done that, if you were thinking in stereotypes, you'd rate their prospects of fitting in pretty highly. Just how they, together with their baby and Nat's two older brothers who join them later, actually fare among the goyim with the Guinness is the subject of The Ash Fire, a new play by Gavin Kostick.

Responding to the multi-ethnic make-up of its local audience, Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre has long specialised in giving us vivid glimpses of diverse societies and cultures. (In this neck of the theatrical woods, though, you don't walk in too much fear of a revival of Coward's This Happy Breed). The theatre last focused on Jewish experience two years ago with Jean-Claude Grumberg's piece about a family, fleeing from Nazi- occupied Paris, who go into panicky hiding in the countryside.

The balance of forces and sympathies in that drama was, in certain respects, the reverse of that found in Kostick's play. Vichy France was a place rife with anti- Semitism (French police would help Jews on to familiar-looking Paris buses which then travelled to unfamiliar destinations). But A Free Country could still view with half-amused tolerance its unheroic, flustered little hero, whose behaviour (until his embarrassed bit-part in the Liberation) was no object lesson in dutiful Jewishness. In The Ash Fire, by contrast, the Irish are largely seen as a tolerant people who kill only with kindness. Yet it ends with a stirring display of role-model righteousness as Nat (Peter Hanly) hearkens to the inner voice telling him to seek and help build Jerusalem. He heads off into the night with wife and baby, leaving behind his compromising brothers and their shiksa women. Easier, on the whole, to warm to the first of these scenarios.

Only a Sean O'Cohen could do justice to a play in which Lubliners become Dubliners and Mr Kostick does not yet fit that bill. His dramaturgy has a stilted, point-making feel while Fiona Leech and Fiona Whelan's set exiles the play in an unatmospheric limbo, with its symbolic cut-out flames that come into their own when Nat's workshop is burned down or whenever persecution is intimated. Dublin's impact on these refugees is further muffled by the fact that the play only dramatises contact with two pretty inert natives: Cait, the landlord's daughter (Clodagh O'Donoghue), and Doris, a left-wing activist student from Trinity College (Karen Ardiff). Scenes in which rows erupt over abandoning or preserving the old customs / superstitions scrupulously avoid taking any unexpected turns. The interesting bits, frustratingly, keep happening offstage.

At one point, for example, one of the men sings part of a funny conflation of 'Mother Macree' and 'My Yiddisher Momma'. Instead of simply being offered a snatch of the finished ditty, you want to be present at the moment of mutual recognition when the Jewish newcomers and the Irishmen realised they were both from mother-centred cultures and then were relaxed enough with each other to parody the fact. I wiled away the duller stretches of Jim Culleton's production fantasising an encounter between these boys and Dublin's most famous (albeit lapsed) Jew, Leopold Bloom. He knew what it was like to be at home and homeless.

Continues at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 to 20 February (071- 328 1000).

(Photograph omitted)

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