The Holy Rosenbergs, National Theatre: Cottesloe, London

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Friday 18 March 2011 01:00 GMT

I can't recall seeing the Cottesloe look as ungainly as it does configured for Laurie Sansom's in-the-round production of The Holy Rosenbergs, a new play by Ryan Craig. Flanking the authentically evoked living room of the eponymous Edgware Jewish family, the blocks of seats are at several distracting angles to each other, creating an untidy, higgledy-piggledy effect. The play, too, is a bit of a mess. Indebted to Arthur Miller, it's a sort "Son of All My Sons" crossed with "Rebirth of a Salesman" – centring on a self-deluded patriarch who is forced to face up to the fact that he is culpably implicated in the death in warfare of his son.

The Second World War was morally straightforward, of course, by comparison with the conflict in which Danny lost his life fighting for the Israeli Defence Forces. Indeed, all too neatly, his sister Ruth (Susannah Wise) just happens to be a lawyer working for the UN Inquiry into war crimes in Gaza. The play focuses on the various ways in which the family finds itself pitted against the local Jewish community. A rabbi tries to persuade Ruth to stay away from the funeral because her presence is liable to spark both pro- and anti-Israel demonstrations. We also learn that the family's kosher catering business has collapsed because of the (unjustly) suspected death by food poisoning of one its customers.

Craig wants us to see in the father, David, a fundamentally good but weak and insecure man who feels underrated by his friends and who nurses a desperate need to be re-accepted by the tribe that has dropped him. By turns anxiously convivial and broodingly morose, pressurising and propitiating, Henry Goodman's excellent portrayal of this driven protagonist takes us straight into his nervous system. Tilly Tremayne also delivers a lovely, comically spot-on performance as his long-suffering wife who struggles to remain stoic in a straitened situation where they now can't even eat out "in case the kosher police spot us".

It's clear that Craig – whose earlier plays, such as the thematically related What We Did to Weinstein I have liked more than some critics – knows this neck of the woods intimately. But The Holy Rosenbergs works only in flurries rather than as a whole. It's entirely set on the eve of Danny's funeral, which may be a mistake. It's not inconceivable that the family would invite to round for a business dinner a successful old friend Saul (a nicely pompous Paul Freeman) whose blessing they need for the future of the catering firm. But neither that unlikelihood, nor the over-tidily differentiated children (there's also an arty slacker son, finely played by Alex Waldmann, who could never replace the dead Danny) is ever made to feel probable on our pulses by the writing. And there are some encounters that are artificially engineered to a shy-making degree. The idea that the distinguished head of the Gaza Inquiry would drop by, on the eve of the funeral, with the boy's psychological profile, and proof that he had been prepared to give testimony to it, suggests a degree of insensitivity on his part that would effectively disqualify him from the job. The cast, though, are good and often manage to inject persuasiveness into tinny-sounding material that does not really hang together.

In rep to 24 June (020 7452 3000)

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