Finborough Theatre, London – until 28 March 2020
The Finborough’s revival of Paul Kember’s 1982 play, sees a mixed group of pasty white Englanders fleeing from their green and pleasant land, heading for voluntary work at an Israeli kibbutz. Ostensibly, they’ve scrimped and saved for the purposes of cultural exchange and a character building experience. But as the story progresses, it’s clear these miseries are divided between those after a novelty holiday, imperial English arrogance and crudity packed along with the sunscreen and tight shorts, and those trying to escape an identity crisis back home.
One can understand the attraction of reviving this play post-Brexit. Fundamentally, the tension inherent in the clash between the volunteers and their hosts typifies the sense of a nation exporting mixed messages and woolly-mindedness to rest of the world.
When asked to put on a show for the kibbutz – something that exemplifies who the characters are and where they come from, the despondent group, divided by class and temperament, are at a loss. What does it mean to be British? Who are we as a people? The characters didn’t know in 1982 and we don’t know now.
What makes Not Quite Jerusalem such a vivid and enjoyable play, is the nuanced and recognisable characters – backed here by exemplary performances from a talented cast.
Cambridge 1st year Mike’s burgeoning relationship with Gila, the blunt, abrasive local girl, teases out both his frustrations with an England he sees hijacked by entitlement, ignorance, and vandalism from unchecked elites (can you imagine?), and sentimental romanticism for the kibbutz ideal – a flat hierarchy, a country open to the world and interested in its cultures and ideas.
But the relationship, which falls as he opens up, also shows the limits of that idealism. He and his new girlfriend are separated by language and attitude. They lack a common history and understanding. This is what Mike longs for but can’t find at home or abroad.
Carrie, the delicate, try-hard artist who may or may not have come on board with false pretences, can’t understand why he rushes to the defence of the loutish, foul mouthed Dave and his sex obsessed friend, Pete. The two of them seem to embody everything that’s crass and boorish about the Englishman abroad. But Mike sees them as refugees from a culture of neglect; men without a country who nevertheless have been indoctrinated to be proud of their heritage. In 2020, we watch them make Jew jokes and bare arse, and we fancy they’re the Leave voters of the future – people whose sense of ownership over history and their identity is only going to further decline with age.
In 1982 it was emerging Thatcherism and post-war decline that imbued the black comedy of this piece with pathos. In 2020 the tourists have gone home and the chickens have followed to roost.
Not Quite Jerusalem is a snapshot of a past that recently bled into the present. You want to reach out and reassure the characters the inequities and uncertainties they feel will change, and 40 years hence they’ll have a proud island story to tell, ready to perform to enamoured audiences. You want to, but you can’t.