The year is 1908, persecutions against Jews is raging in Eastern Europe and masses of refugees are trying to escape the pogroms by fleeing to the new continent. Amongst the many heading to Canada are Chaya (Mary Fay Coady) and Chaim (Eric Da Costa), who meet fortuitously whilst both are quarantined in Halifax, Nova Scotia, due to their dubious health conditions. Chaim has a rash which the doctors mistake for typhus, Chaya has a cough which is thought to be a symptom of tuberculosis.
The pair meet again sometime later, both now in Montreal. Chaim has found a job and feels ready to also find a wife, making no secret of his soft spot for Chaya. She however is quite reluctant to remarry, having lost her husband during the painstaking migratory travels through Russia. When she eventually accepts, a scene from their wedding is amongst the most suggestive in this 80-minute long show.
Whistling through the decades, we see them facing life together. Defying the challenges and overwhelming moments that bittersweet fate throws at them. Their family beautifully expands with children and then grandchildren, all born and bred Canadian, “maybe not old stock Canadian, but Canadian”.
Ben Caplan’s charismatic stage presence is essential for this mesmerising work to succeed. His vivid storytelling intersperses Coady and Da Costa’s touching performance together with engaging klezmer musical pieces. Taking us on a long winding route across borders and high seas, Caplan shows us love and death with lyricism but also effortless humour. Part compere, part master puppeteer, he doesn’t allow us to be sad, briskly halting scenes that are turning too bleak. His fascinating vocal range has the same depth and livelihood of the dramatic stories that unfolds before our eyes.
In the charmingly derelict Wilton’s Music Hall, strings of incandescent bulbs hang from the balcony, along the sides, to reach the stage. These are often the only, dimly glowing, source of light in Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry’s understated design. There is a scene where Kelsey McNulty’s accordion lingers gently in the background whilst everyone else goes quiet. Her presence is highlighted by a barely visible, flickering halo.
Thoughtful touches like this are the x-factor in a gorgeous production, spiced up by catchy tunes that encourage the audience to clap along with the beat of Jeff Kingsbury’s drumset. A moving lullaby is the sort of song you’d play on repeat. Look it up on YouTube, together with the rest of the Old Stock soundtrack.
As explained in a note by playwright Hannah Moscovitch, this is the truthful story of her paternal family, with only a few gaps filled in with artistic liberties. Whilst we celebrate the lucky ones who made it and found much sought-after respite in a new settlement, so much resonates with the current state of affairs.
The end reached, the set is enclosed as yet again the shipping container doors shut, packing away these exceptional artists, ready to resume their relentless journey.
Author: Hannah Moscovitch
Director: Christian Barry
Producer: Sam Levy for 2b theatre company
Box Office: 02077022789
Booking Link: https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/572-old-stock-a-refugee-love-story-
Booking Until: 28 September 2019