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Review: Filthy Business, at Hampstead Theatre

Explosive depiction of a family at war is a meaty drama

23 March, 2017 — By Sipora Levy

Callie Cooke as Bernice in Filthy Business. Photo: Dominic Clemence

SET against a backdrop of immense political and social change, Ryan Craig’s new play is a very personal one. Based on his own family’s experience of running a foam rubber business in north London, he described waiting for it to open “like running stark naked through my old neighbourhood”. No wonder, for it is an explosive depiction of a family at war.

At the centre is Yetta Solomon, a Jewish matriarch, presiding over her self-made empire, with an iron fist. She is determined to keep her family together, at all costs. This is unsurprising as she lost everything fleeing fascism, and came to England with nothing. Craig has created a formidable character in Yetta, and to his credit refuses to sentimentalise her. She is devious, manipulative and utterly ruthless, but Sara Kestelman imbues her with enough charm to avoid her becoming a caricature.

Callum Woodhouse (Mickey) and Mairead McKinley (Eileen) in Filthy Business. Photo by Dominic Clemence

There are intergenerational tensions – her sons Nat (Louis Hilyer) and Leo (Dorian Lough) hate each other. The grandsons, spirited Mickey (Callum Woodhouse) and his furious cousin Gerard (Jack Bannon) also at loggerheads, are dreaming of freedom. Only Monty, a downtrodden employee (Edmund Derrington) sees the bigger picture.

Babirye Bukilwa brings a quiet dignity to Rosa, a Nigerian worker, whose dalliance with Leo threatens the status quo. Eileen, Leo’s Irish wife, (Mairead McKinley) is strong and fiery, desperate for her husband to escape his mother’s control.

However, a couple of female characters are woefully underwritten – Carol (Elizabeth Hill) and Bernice (Callie Cooke), Nat’s wife and daughter respectively, are merely props.

As the years pass and interest in rubber dwindles, there are twists in the tale and Yetta’s unwillingness to change causes dramatic upheavals she was unable to foresee. There is too much shouting and the fight scenes are awkward, but overall this is a meaty drama with much to commend it.

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