A lengthy and absurdist look at commerce, love and sex, this revival of Hanoch Levin’s tragicomic play is brought to the stage by Gamayun Theatre and proves to be an uncomfortable and disquieting watch.
The Rubber Merchants is about staying safe, with Asya Sosis’s production attempting to merge “the absurdist comedy of Israeli literature, Ukranian theatre tradition and British styles of performance”. With a floor strewn with packing peanuts, a throbbing disco beat, and a constant drooling objectification of women, this play somehow struggles to hit its mark.
Yohanan Tsingerhai (sweaty, nervous, a borderline pervert around women, played by Tom Dayton), Bella Berlow (unpleasant and impenetrable, played by Hadas Kershaw), and Shmuel Sproll (a jaded would-be rock star, played by Joseph Emms) all have their own dreams and expectations as they navigate the thorny paths of love, money and sex. Levin’s focus is on fear, and risk, and what happens if we fail to make decisions.
While not a musical, the songs (composed by Dmitriy Saratsky) are essential to moving the plot along, forcing a peek behind realistic facades. Two are staged as stadium-like duets, complete with waving arms and soaring vocals; one in act to offers Bella a little window of vulnerability but this soon closes as she returns to her money-pursuing ways. All the musical interludes are presented as fantastical, on a raised stage, with coloured lights and pulsing beats.
After the interval, act two jumps two decades but not much has changed: Bella is still a pharmacist, and still her worst enemy, tempting and teasing men with cruelty, aware of her role as a possession to be bartered and possessed; Yohanan is as nervous and dysfunctional as ever. Only Shmuel has altered, physically, and has become peevish and insular in his blindness (one of his songs rhymes “pity” with “diabetes”, which is perhaps unintentionally comic).
The Rubber Merchants is a show about condoms, about sex and climax, about missed opportunities. It is far too long (150 minutes) requiring a lot of concentration from the audience (there is one moment of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ but it felt too forced to work). I welcomed the absurdity, which is there now and then within the play, and the choreography and movement work from Marita Miasnikova gave each character their own physical signature (Bella’s bottom wiggle in tight skirt and fishnets; Yohanan’s twitchy erotic excitement; Shmuel’s sense of tight control).
Ultimately, though, this show is a revival which led me to wonder why it was produced now – the issues around risk, engagement and companionship could be tenuously linked to the recent pandemic and lockdown, but it isn’t enough, and the comedy and timing is sadly lacking.
The Rubber Merchants continues at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 29th January 2022 – book tickets at https://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/TheRubberMerchant.html
Reviewer: Louise Penn
Reviewed: 13th January 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★
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