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Calcutta Kosher

By • West End
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Note: This review dates from 18 February 2004 and an earlier tour stop for this production.

Shelley Silas was born into Calcutta’s Jewish community, though her parents left India when she was a baby. Nonetheless, she’s learnt enough about her heritage to convince with this heart-warming and arresting tale set in that dwindling community, now numbering barely 30 souls, though it still boasts three synagogues.

For one soul, Mozelle, a matriarch facing her final illness, the synagogues symbolise the umbilical cord she will never break, even if her two daughters, Silvie and Esther, have long since fled the nest to settle in the US and London, respectively. They arrive back at her summons, each determined to assuage her guilt at neglecting Mozelle, by persuading her to leave India and join their families in the West.

In this neat inversion of King Lear, Mozelle acknowledges she owes more to Maki, the devoted Indian girl she took in as a child and who tends her still, than to these prodigal daughters. To their chagrin, the younger girl they’ve always treated like a servant turns out to be the true heir of Mozelle’s traditions, in more ways than they imagine.

Janet Steel’s production for Asian Theatre Company Kali boasts a fine cast of Asian performers, who have clearly studied the ways of the Jewish community to make them their own. The four actresses playing two generations - and apparently two races and even two castes - of women, seize with relish on their juicy roles.

As Mozelle, Jamila Massey is an intriguing and engaging mix of vulnerability and steel. Her serenity in the face of death contrasts with her urgency at the need to sort out her legacy before her time comes.

Harvey Virdi as Esther, the more conventional daughter from the UK, is a good foil for the flashier Silvie, played by Shelley King as a born-to-shop LA babe, with a great sense of style and humour. Silas wisely gives each daughter in turn plenty of stage time and space to establish a relationship with her mother - and with the audience.

The plot begins to thicken indeed, when Seema Bowri’s Maki appears, to attend to everyone’s needs and not only to prepare the Sabbath meal, but to light the Sabbath candles. Bowri provides a lovely, contained and dignified centre to the action, beautifully underlined by the quiet discretion of Richard Santhiri as the houseboy, Siddque, the only male in this story.

Calcutta Kosher is an illuminating and poignant insight into a disappearing world.

- Judi Herman (reviewed at London’s Southwark Playhouse)


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