Review by Sam Waite
Sometimes when a show plays in a smaller space, the bareness and lack of stature can become glaringly obvious. To the credit of all involved in staging Nice Jewish Boy at The Hope theatre (a pub theatre with a capacity of around 50 patrons) the stage never feels as small as it is. A one-man play written and performed by Josh Maughan, the minute space is filled not only with his movement and handful of props, but with the musings that come from entering adulthood while torn between two opposing social circles.
Josh Sher, Maughan’s semi-autobiographical character, is seemingly living alone in London on the eve of his 19th birthday. We meet him asking Alexa to skip a song on his playlist and elatedly beginning to dance when his library lands on Whitney. The skipped song, “Hava Nagila,” is a touch on the nose and frankly a confusing choice for party-loving Josh’s playlist. Soon enough he’s meeting up with a Grindr hook-up and stumbling worse for wear into a Synagogue service.
The lead-up to his rendezvous is the first time that Josh directs the audience to the printed guides they’ve been given. On one side, we can check what it means when older Jewish folk call him a “mensch” and the other helps us understand what “poppers” are. This is a fun way to involve the audience without being too interactive and disrupting the flow of the story, but I would have liked to see it used more – as things progress, any mention of the guide largely falls to the wayside. There are a couple of moments of more direct audience participation that I won’t spoil here but, while fun, they represented an issue I had with the piece.
The script itself seems torn between whether this is a story being told to us or one being performed for us. Maughan’s performance is always engaged, and his persona feels fully thought out and largely very affecting, but the balance between moments of speaking directly to the audience and those acting out scenes in real-time occasionally feels off. Josh being gifted a cultural trip to Israel by the parents he can’t bring himself to come out to is a moving story, but the transition from one of delivery to the other made it difficult at times for me to stay invested.
However, I cannot fault Maughan and director Jake Samson’s use of the space. Josh is a kinetic young man, moving from spot to spot and darting to the very edges of the stage. This helps for us to understand his anxiety and feelings of displacement from the get-go. Also stellar is the combined lighting and set design from Springbok House Productions. Along with a handful of small items and costume pieces, the set contains a handful of lit boxes which Maughan moves as he performs to create the different spaces. These boxes can be made to stay white, as they mostly do, or change colours to create a club-like atmosphere.
Josh Maughan’s understanding of the balance between his (and Josh Sher’s) Jewish heritage and existence within the gay community is clearly well-developed and deeply felt. This is the primary reason to see not only this but his future work. His clarity of purpose and desire to fuse his at-times opposing identities is admirable, and makes for an enjoyable, if occasionally uneven, hour of musing. Yes, some of it can feel like a talk more than a play, but this is still the work of an assured new voice making strides towards something truly awe-inspiring.
Nice Jewish Boy plays at the Hope Theatre until 17th December. Tickets from https://www.thehopetheatre.com/