It’s actually wonderful to go to the theatre and be genuinely delighted for all involved in a production, particularly when it’s a new work. Created by two writers in residence of Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program, Elise Esther Hearst with Phillip Kavanagh, A Very Jewish Christmas Carol was commissioned in 2019 and in the four years since has undergone rigorous script development to get it to stage. Using Charles Dickens’s classic tale as base material and drawn from the writers’ own backgrounds, this Melbourne centric take and twist on A Christmas Carol is an incredibly well put together and thoroughly enjoyable new play.
Just like the source material, this is a morality tale, a fantasy to reflect dysfunction, rectify disappointment and repair disillusion but legacy and intergenerational grief are tenacious task masters. Heavily pregnant and grief-stricken local baker Ely is relentlessly focused on the alchemy of her grandmother’s famous Polish gingerbread. For Ely, bashing dough and obsessing over what made this secret recipe so special is preferable distraction to reality, her intervention plotting family and all iterations of year end festivities. Ghosts, as prescribed by Dickens, of our past, present and future have much to teach and Ely is about to be educated.
Jewish humour is incredibly recognisable, irreverence and irony often born of melancholy is virtually a brand and when it resides with women, it’s particularly potent. This is lived material, the Jewish Mother is right here, alive and dead in a fabulously multi-generational depiction of surrendering to the inevitable despite astonishing self-awareness and proclamation of never becoming “just like her!” This is a warm celebration of life and family contrasting and honouring different traditions while gently highlighting the benefits of giving more consideration to the stuff we simply don't talk about.
With a cast of seven that includes only one fella, this is a great showcase for strong actors and well-drawn female characters who navigate the awkward with direct, humorous and brutal honesty. Narrative reveals give increasing texture to the characters allowing for poignant fold back to journey, history and story. There are a few moments of slapstick silliness that feel a little unnecessary given the calibre of wonderfully acerbic wit within the text but they’re easily forgiven and as ever, unsurprisingly delighted an opening night audience so prone and primed for over clapping and over laughing. This is a real ensemble piece affording everyone but the wonderful Miriam Glaser as Ely, some fantastic opportunities beyond their main roles. It's rare and indeed pleasing to see such evenly good performances across the board however stage veterans Evelyn Krape and Louise Siversen are most worthy of note. Both are absolutely joyous to watch given their impeccable mastery of timing and delivery.
Jacob Battista presents a versatile and realistic stage design that feels consciously oversized to perhaps reflect Ely’s sense of being lost in the space left by her grandmother. Some fun effects really impressed and delighted but were never intrusive or focus puling as they so often can be when money trumps clever. Dann Barbers costumes are beautifully considered and realised, often great fun and in some instances genuinely laugh out loud funny. With great music and some fantastic festive singing dreamed up and arranged by Jed Palmer and Musical Director Jude Perl, MTC have pulled together a smashingly good evening in the theatre.
With two versions of A Christmas Carol currently playing in town, this ‘Very Jewish’ one is a really good choice if seasonal budgets won’t stretch to both.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
A Very Jewish Christmas Carol
by Elise Esther Hearst with Phillip Kavanagh
Director Sarah Giles
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner VIC
Dates: 14 Nov — 16 Dec 2023