Steven Berkoff’s glorious, bullish and evocative lament for a disappearing Jewish East End of London in the form of a wake – “sitting shiva” is a ceremonial seven-day observance in the house of the dead – has come up a treat in the burnished splendour of the Hackney Empire.

To be honest, in this respect it has exceeded my expectations. The play was first seen at the New End in Hampstead last May where I felt it lacked a little plot and exhibited a few too many loose threads – not that bad a fault in a play where the mourning custom should be to tear your clothes. But Berkoff, who is now appearing as the bereaved son-in-law Lionel, as well as directing (with the invaluable second eye of his assistant Susie McKenna), has sharpened the play’s ebb and flow.

The dead man is Monte Hyman, a tailor. His daughter, Debbi (Sue Kelvin), Lionel’s wife, is hosting the arrival of Lionel’s brother and his wife, Sam and Betty; as well as family friend Morris, a leather merchant; their son Mike, a budding actor, and his gentile girlfriend, Sylv; and daughter Shirly, who is on the telephone for most of the first act. The uninvited guest is Mrs Green, who worked on Saturdays for Monte for thirty years and knew him a little better than anyone assumed…

As a child, Berkoff heard the “shiva” as “shiver” and translates this element of cold and fear into an alarming shouting match as everyone scoffs (in mime) cheesecake and strudel and sits on hard boxes. The first act is an Expressionistic resume of East End mores involving bodily functions, shared memories, how to make blintzes and indeed how to make a suit. The episodes are beautifully punctuated with frieze-like dances and ensemble patches of half-heard mumbling.

The technical side of the presentation is superb: Mike Robertson’s lighting and Paul Gavin’s sound pin the actors in a sensual silhouette, like butterflies under glass. Their movement, led by the galvanic presence of Berkoff at his absolute best, is as precise and deliberate as any dancer’s, the effect of heightened realism similar to that in the paintings of Peter Howson (whom Berkoff has collected for many years) or Beryl Cook.

The spine of the argument is the volatile marriage of Lionel and Debbi, pushed to its limit in the circumstances and exploding with a triple Berkoff howl of “Enough.” It is a classic worm-turning scene with Betty cast as Peggy Mount in Sailor Beware. Frank Lazarus has joined the company as Morris, and is both eloquent and calming in his performance, and the new Mike is Russell Bentley, with a touching speech about the actor’s out-of-work life that is a little classic on its own.

Barry Davis’s performance as blind Sam has grown immeasurably into a political trip down Jewish memory lane in both New York and at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, building to a wonderful outburst of King Lear in Yiddish. Bernice Stegers as Betty mutters and glowers hilariously at his side, while Leila Crerar as Sylv and Catherine Bailey as Shirly are as good as they were before. You may not have to be Jewish, or hail from the East End, to enjoy this play to the utmost. But it will undoubtedly help, and the opening night reception suggested that the piece, and Berkoff, have found their ideal audience.

- Michael Coveney


Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from May 2006 and this production's earlier run in Hampstead.

Steven Berkoff’s Sit and Shiver at the New End in Hampstead is the second “out Jewish” domestic comedy in London, following Mike Leigh’s Two Thousand Years at the National, but raising the decibel level (someone has a mouth “bigger than the Blackwall tunnel”) and lowering the tone (you should be gone, but not forgotten, with the wind).

Whereas Leigh examines the impact of a sudden rush of religion on a secular household, Berkoff’s thunderbolt is a revelation of love at the ritual remembrance of Monty Hyman, a tailor who has finally turned up his toes after years of turning up trousers.

Mrs Green helped out in the shop on Saturdays, but loved her boss for thirty years. Louise Jameson arrives at the end of the first act like a glowing, beautiful beacon in the raucous muddle of screaming and shouting at Monty’s daughter’s house; Debby (Sue Kelvin) and her husband Lionel (Linal Haft) are “sitting Shivah” with the family, mourning for Monty.

The play’s title is how Berkoff knew the ritual as a small child. Comfortable chairs are replaced with hard “boxes,” mirrors are covered and the table set with food, mostly cakes. The family is assembled in a series of vivid tableaux, framing them in dance music, cartoon expressions, memories of the sweatshop, how to make a blintz.

Mrs Green, inevitably, is not Jewish. Nor is the girlfriend, Sylv (Leila Crerar), of Debby and Lionel’s son Mike (Iddo Goldberg), a young actor who has served a stint on a television soap but is obviously going to struggle. Sylv is another way of setting off the grotesquery of the occasion, leavened with the authenticity of experience.

Debby’s brother, Sam (Barry Davis) is a blind veteran of the Battle of Cable Street, when the East End rose up against Oswald Mosley and his black shirts. He is also the voice of the Yiddish theatre in New York and witness of the French actor, Joseph Pujol (known as “Le Petomane”), who had a phenomenal capacity for farting at will on the stage.

The same, metaphorically, could be said of Sam’s wife, Betty (Bernice Stegers), who blurts out well-meaning insults and recipes like an over-charged agony aunt, or indeed of Lionel himself; the hilarious pent-up anxiety in Haft’s performance is visibly inflaming his blood vessels.

There is nothing much perfect about Berkoff’s play, nor should you expect it. There are numerous loose threads, as befits a mourning custom where you are supposed to tear your clothes. But this is more than just a memorial for Monty. It is a trip down Petticoat Lane to Berkoff’s own childhood where, despite sitting and shivering, he keeps home fires burning in a Jewish community of poverty, optimism, love, graphic Yiddish vocabulary, pickles and bagels, blintzes and Bloom’s.

- Michael Coveney