Sunday, April 28, 2019

Crossing the Atlantic - Old Stock and Small Island - Theatre Reviews

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story - 2b theatre company at Tarragon Theatre Mainstage - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan & Christian Barry
Runs until May 26th 2019

Small Island - National Theatre in the Olivier Theatre - London, UK - **** (out of 5 stars)
Adapted by Helen Edmundson, based on the novel by Andrea Levy, Directed by Rufus Norris
Runs until Aug. 10th 2019

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story tells the deeply personal tale of Hannah Moscovitch's paternal great-grandparents and the entry into Canada at the turn of the century as they escaped Romania and found a new life in Montreal. But the journey, and the love story between Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Fay Coady) isn't as straight forward as the romance we all hope for and to tell this little refugee love story, we have Ben Caplan as The Wanderer, who opens up a shipping container to tell of this beautiful, heartfelt tale with his booming voice and oddball humour.

From within the shipping container, Coady and Oore doubling up as musicians and playing Chaya and Chaim, and Graham Scott on keyboard and accordion and Jamie Kronick on drums, with Caplan leading the way, introduce us to two very different Romanian Jewish refugees as they land in Halifax, sending a spark through Chaim. They meet up again later in Montreal where Chaim has won over Chaya's father, but less so for Chaya, but she enters a marriage more for convenience and survival, and Coady plays Chaya's bluntness and side-eyes to perfection against Oore's naive smitten romantic notions.

The songs by Ben Caplan and director Christian Barry offer more side commentary than it does to move the story along, and the narration adds some humour to a tale that becomes increasingly dark as realities begin to derail what a sweet love story we all root for, and it gives the piece a balance that feels in spirit to the Jewish resilience. While it may be the specific tale of Hannah's great-grandparents, there's of course the universality, especially as Chaya and Chaim's love story must react to the realities of being refugees in a new country, one that may or may not live up to the refugees' expectations.

While Caplan's voice and songs are stirring and sometimes silly and sly, it's when we finally have moments where Chaim and/or Chaya duet, either with Caplan himself or saving the best for last, when they finally duet together, where we truly get the emotional peak of the story but also the theatrical presentation of this musical that felt like it may have held out too long for. While the musical runs only 90 minutes, it is in Chaim and Chaya's final duet where it all culminates into the special little show that Old Stock aims to be.

Over on Small Island, a large, epic sprawling tale of different lives collide in Britain after the war pulls Jamaicans who stay in the UK after helping with the war efforts. Based on Andrea Levy's novel, the new stage adaptation is pretty basic in its theatrical retelling, but the National Theatre production spares nothing with a large cast of 40 on its Olivier stage that sweeps us into the world of three lives that intertwine across the Atlantic.

This time, we follow the journey of Jamaicans crossing the other way over the Atlantic as war eventually brings Jamaican colonials to help in Britain's war efforts. Hortense (Leah Harvey), a Jamaican teaching assistant yearns to live in England, and while her childhood love Michael (CJ Beckford) has moved on to new loves and a new future by enlisting in the English army, she eventually meets Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), and marries him for the sake of convenience, and as an excuse to move to London.  Meanwhile in England, White Brit Queenie (Aisling Loftus) escapes her family's farm in Lincolnshire to live with her forward-thinking Aunt Dorothy (Beatie Edney), then marries the stiff Bernard (Andrew Rothney) so that she can remain in London when her aunt dies. Lives intercross, the war takes its toll on everyone, and changes the lives forever, as each person tries to survive in their own way.

Hortense's expectations of London are abruptly shattered when she walks into Gilbert's tiny one-room apartment, rented from Queenie's house, as she's left to fend for herself when Bernard disappears in the war. Lives collide and Hortense naively discovers the racial divide still lurking about in England. There's a lot of story to tell but Norris and Edmundson manage to make the 3 hour 10 minute (including intermission) tale flow by with ease. It is wonderful storytelling at its purest, without any necessary fancy theatrical tricks, and I was enthralled the entire time.

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