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Indecent review – Paula Vogel's hit play reopens the Menier Chocolate Factory

Paula Vogel's play opens in London after being delayed by Covid restrictions

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Indecent company
© Johan Persson

There are currently a number of shows in the capital reflecting Jewish experiences, and often barbaric treatment, across the first half of the 20th century – from the epic sweep of Stoppard's Leopoldstadt to the abstract brutality of Josh Azouz's Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia. Where Paula Vogel's Indecent stands out is that, rather than focussing on an individual political situation, or a community over the course of many decades, it touches upon the fraught history of the controversial yet seminal play: Sholem Asch's The God of Vengeance.

Going down in history as the first Broadway text to feature two women kissing live on stage (the company were subsequently arrested and convicted for their actions in a US court), Vengeance was staged across the world, adapted from its original Yiddish into a panoply of different languages. It resonated with different communities in different ways, as Vogel painstakingly marks over the 100-minute, one-act experience: for some eager Yank sensationalists, it was a text full of brimfire ready to shock and affront (and flog tickets), while to avant-garde 1910s Berliners it was à la mode and edgy. Finally, to a small community of Jewish Poles facing desolation and unfathomable oppression, it was an opportunity to escape from persecution and stage a form of escapism – all to earn a morsel of bread from benevolent audience members.

The play's the thing where Vogel captures the conscience of theatrical communities across the globe, and each scene is set up with forensic skill to show creatives opposed to Asch's work: we meet 1900s peers who lambast the Polish writer for undermining Yiddish cultural output by depicting immoral acts, those in the 1910s seeking to use his trailblazing text to progress their own careers or those in the 1920s willing to sacrifice narrative integrity to keep the coffers topped up. A carousel of contexts that clatter across the stage.

The company
© Johan Persson

Vogel's play pre-dates its current London contemporaries, first seen in the US in 2015 but only just reaching the UK stage now (it was cut short during its preview period in early 2020, just as we slid into what turned into an achingly long, pandemic-induced wait). Just like The God of Vengeance, Indecent has played on stages of all sizes – starting at the 478-seat Yale Rep, it headed to the cosier Vineyard off-Broadway and then onto the 1000-seat Cort Theatre.

Back now at the intimate (though marvellously well ventilated) Menier Chocolate Factory, Vogel's text, which could have been heavy, burdened by the weight of years, themes and anguish, is refreshingly endearing, fleet and humourous: the half-score company of actors and musicians (the line blurs frequently) are a whirligig of whimsy, multi-rolling across the time periods with a select few recurring figures denoted by simple props in Rebecca Taichman's economic production, helped by wise choices courtesy of designer Riccardo Hernandez.

It would therefore be unjust to single out individuals, though Finbar Lynch's company manager Lemml, who spends his life shepherding and stewarding the text and a variety of productions across nations like some unofficial chaperone, blends timid gentleness and artistic defiance with heartbreaking effect.

Recurring images return in new contexts across the piece – a proscession of dancers returns as a queue for the checks on Ellis Island, before becoming long-lines preparing for death. Undercurrents of hope ripple through the texts, which blends comic and tragic in the same way that Christopher Akerlind makes chiaroscuro lighting wash across each scene, or choreographer David Dorfman goes from static passages to quaint choreography. A moving, memorable evening.