The Lucky Ones, Hampstead Theatre, London

When personal history repeats itself

Rhoda Koenig
Sunday 23 February 2014 05:05

Before anyone speaks in Charlotte Eilenberg's play, the music we hear tells us what kind of Jews her characters are – it is Wagner and they love it. The Lucky Ones begins in 1968, in a north London garden where Bruno and Anna Mosenthal await Anna's brother, Leo Black, and his wife. Though all fled Berlin 30 years before, the Blacks and the Mosenthal know they will never be considered English, but the latter, prosperously middle class and culturally secure, are not much troubled by this.

For the Blacks, whose middle-class status is more precarious, the past exerts a harsher pressure. Leo has sacrificed his own welfare, and that of his wife and son, to caring for his sour, clinging father, a manufacturer who lost health and fortune in the flight from the Nazis. Now, at last, Leo looks like making good, for a woman is expected who is keen to buy the cottage the two couples own, and Leo plans to drive a hard bargain. But, when the buyer arrives, she turns out to be a German gentile whose father was – a property developer in Berlin. Will Leo find the repetition of the family trauma too great a price?

The content of this dilemma seems highly contrived, but the problem with the play goes deeper than this. From the first words of Eilenberg's foreword to the text, it is clear that the play is autobiographical. What she has created is not so much a drama as a reminiscence. The characters are quite lifelike, particularly the abruptly and pointlessly intense Leo and his son, Daniel (whom we see in Act II), a middle-aged baby who wants to be the main attraction at his father's funeral.

But the play lacks movement: each of the three acts (the second takes place 30 years later, the third in 1978) is a prolonged argument about the past. The play's static nature is emphasised by its separating the main parties to the quarrels. Leo's father never appears: Daniel and the Mosenthal's daughter, who resent their own demanding fathers, turn up only after Leo and Bruno are dead: instead of confrontation, there is only complaint.

There is far less fault to find with Matthew Lloyd's sensitive production. Michelle Newell (Mrs Black) gives a rather fussy performance, but David Horo-vitch as Bruno is a model of grumpy probity; Margot Leicester, as Anna, of maternal emollience. Even better are James Clyde's slightly louche, self-pitying Daniel and Anton Lesser's Leo, sympathetic despite the vindictiveness he strives to present as principled behaviour. Ironically, in her foreword, Eilenberg coolly writes about something that happened to her grandfather before she was born that is more shocking and involving than anything in her play. Material from her own lifetime, however, still seems too close for more than this diffuse and sketchy treatment.

To 1 June (020-7722 9301)

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