Amy McAllister, Tessa Churchard, Stephen Boxer in Brighton Beach Memoirs

Brighton Beach Memoirs

19th February 2010

At Watford Palace Theatre until 27 February

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Living in Brooklyn is tough in 1937, especially if you’re Eugene Morris Jerome – ‘almost, but not quite, 15’ – and cooped up with your extended family, facing recession and worrying about the threat of war. Or, in Eugene’s case, worrying about puberty and the fortunes of his favourite baseball team. Brighton Beach Memoirs is Eugene’s take on two crucial weeks in the life of the Jerome household – himself, elder brother Stanley, parents Kate and Jack, aunt Blanche and cousins Nora and Laurie. It’s a semi-autobiographical version of playwright Neil Simon’s own young life, and it sparkles with humour and poignancy.

Stephen Boxer as Jack Jerome

Yes, it’s sentimental, and yes, it’s probably dated, but it’s saved from over-sweetness by the vibrancy of the teenage narrator, who addresses us directly as well as taking a full part in the action. This has the effect of both drawing us in and pushing us away, adding a welcome distance and perspective. Ryan Sampson, pictured below as Eugene, inhabits the role beautifully, revelling in the melodramatic crises and wild desires of his life, illuminating the stage with his energy. A little over-enthusiastic at times, perhaps, but that’s teenagers for you.

It’s relevant, I think, that the director of this production, Jennie Darnell, has also directed many episodes of EastEnders for BBC television. What we see on stage isn’t soap opera, certainly (there’s a lot more filial respect, for a start), but she brings a focus on the family tensions, the inter-generational expectations that can tear even the most loving relationships apart, that must certainly have been informed by her work down at the Queen Vic. It’s all there in the nuances… shrugged shoulders, raised eyebrows.

Very well staged and lit, as Watford Palace productions usually are, Brighton Beach Memoirs is a delight to watch from start to finish. The elegant Tessa Churchard is excellent and almost unrecognisable as the stressed, fretful matriarch, Kate, doing her best to hold it all together, although a little more light and shade in some of the emotional scenes with her sister Blanche (neatly played by Cate Hamer) would have been welcome. Recent RADA graduate Ronan Raftery shines as elder son Stanley.

A play about respect, principles, family values… thoughtfully directed, well put together, well acted. Engaging, funny, thought-provoking, this is theatre as it used to be and a pleasure to watch.

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