The Tricycle Theatre is reborn as the Kiln with this over-comedy about creeping middle class racism
Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre has changed its name to Kiln Theatre, prompting an astoundingly boring controversy that I have tried and failed to have an opinion on either way. It has to be said, though, that once you’ve got past the angry people outside protesting the name change – seriously – it feels like you’re walking into a very different and much nicer building. That goes double for the auditorium, which used to be one of the least comfortable places in the Western world, and is now really quite pleasant.
Actor-writer Alexis Zegerman’s ‘Holy Sh!t’ therefore has a little more pressure on it that the usual season opener. The theatre has been shut for two years, and there is a certain expectation that the comeback play must set the tone for whatever it is that may define Kiln over Tricycle.
As such, it feels like a slightly odd piece of programming from artistic director Indhu Rubasingham, who also directs. It is a play about multiculturalism and racism, which clearly has its place in Kiln’s determinedly diverse programme. But it’s also aggressively middle class in a way that feels out of step with the times, a real throwback to the sorts of domestic dramas that defined Josie Rourke’s Bush Theatre or Dominic Cooke’s Royal Court.
Loud Simone (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and tactless Sam (Daniel Lapaine) are secular white Jews. Uptight Juliet (Claire Goose) and affable Nick (Daon Broni) are notionally Christians – she is white and he is black. Simone and Juliet have been friends since uni, and the couples have one daughter apiece, also friends. The adults have hit upon the idea of becoming regular attendees at the local church in order to secure their kids places in the Outstanding local C of E primary. They are, on the face of it, all part of the same middle-class monoculture, joking crassly about not wanting their daughters to attend a local comp with a majority of Muslim pupils. But as the play wears on, the subtle difference in their cultural identities become faultlines along which already strained relationships start to crack.
Zegerman makes some extremely funny observations on the pressures of parenthood and adulthood. She also occasionally approaches something profound about the ineffable nature of identity: just because Sam and Simone go to church doesn’t mean they’re forfeited their Jewishness, or can’t be victims of creeping anti-semitism. Nor, however, does this exempt them from the possibility of behaving in a racist way themselves.
But there’s a sort of directionless cynicism underpinning the play – every time one of her characters gets understandably angry about something, Zegerman undercuts them with some demonstration of their hypocrisy, which is all well and good but it stops ‘Holy Sh!t’ really building up a head of steam. It ends up feeling a bit reluctant to actually come out and make a point.
Which is a shame, as given the current travails of the Labour Party and, indeed, the still fresh-ish memory of Rubasingham’s controversial 2014 decision to refuse to host the Jewish Film Festival while it received Israeli state funding, a really big fearless play about anti-semitism in modern Britain would have been one heck of a season opener.
‘Holy Sh!t’ has bits of this, but it doesn’t commit. To be honest, it mostly feels like a sitcom: sitcom acting, sitcom pacing, sitcom set, sitcommy direction. It’s funny (often) and thought-provoking (occasionally), but I’m not sure it really tells us what ‘Kiln’ is all about.