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Losing Louis by Simon Mendes da Costa opens in London’s West End
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment Magazine The Ticket, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of twenty-eight years. They have a son and a daughter in their early twenties – and a Bedlington Terrier just coming up to Bar Mitzvah age! E-mail : judi_herman@hotmail.com  

Apparently the UK’s Jewish population numbers only about 250,000. You could be forgiven for thinking that most of them are thronging the foyer of North London’s Hampstead Theatre, all eager to see its latest sell-out show ‘Losing Louis’, by Simon Mendes da Costa. This is a theatre where a play with a Jewish flavour will certainly arouse interest – and if it’s halfway decent, a sell-out is almost guaranteed.

The word on the street spread fast about ‘Losing Louis’. There have been daily queues at the theatre for returns and no sooner does it close on a Saturday in Hampstead, than it opens the following Wednesday in London’s West End.

The action of the play takes place in one bedroom – and two different times. In the 1950s, six-year old Tony inadvertently catches his dad Louis in bed with his mistress, just as his wife is about to give birth. The skeletons that subsequently get shoved into the bedroom cupboard only come to light almost fifty years later in the present day, as Tony and his estranged younger brother Reggie come back to their childhood home, accompanied by their wives, for Louis’ funeral.

Da Costa and his director Robin Lefevre cleverly and seamlessly interweave the events of the past and present, allowing the past to illuminate the present and explain deep held antagonisms in this divided family.

Reggie is a successful lawyer and his wife Elizabeth a top jewellery designer – and they have designer teenage children too – a boy and girl, both high achieving in their exams. Tony, by contrast has always had to struggle and he and his wife Sheila have a daughter with Down’s Syndrome.

But there’s much more to their rivalry and animosity than mere envy and what impresses here is not the revelations in the plot, which are not hard to second guess, but the psychology behind their deep-seated effects on the brothers and their wives.

And underpinning all the complicated relationships in the play is the importance of Jewish roots and the tension between being born Jewish and converting, between marrying out – and converting in, starting with Louis, a Jew with a wife who is a convert and a Jewish mistress …

The play is extraordinarily, sometimes shockingly funny, with sex scenes and talk that manage to be at the same time comic and explicit (I guess it would rate a UK cinema certificate for over 18s only!). And it’s played to the hilt by a terrific cast which boasts two of the UK’s leading actresses, Lynda Bellingham as Elizabeth and Alison Steadman as Sheila. Bellingham, well-known from various UK TV sitcoms, proves equally compelling on stage. Steadman is still a favourite actress of her ex-husband Mike Leigh (director of the current award-winning film, ‘Vera Drake’*). She famously created the role of Beverly in ‘Abigail’s Party’ and her Sheila could be a relation of the outrageous Beverley a few years on. But there is an underlying tenderness in her joshing relationship with her husband Tony (a blusteringly loveable David Horovitch) that gives the play its warm heart.

Jason Durr as the Jewish Lothario Louis and Brian Protheroe as the son who has inherited his roving eye are equally convincing in their different time periods. Emma Cunliffe is touching as Louis’ young wife, Bobbie, at home neither in the class, nor the faith into which she has married. And newcomer Anita Brienn, fresh out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, makes a great start to her career as Louis’ sexy, ethereal mistress, Bella.

There was plenty of knowing, appreciative laughter echoing around the Hampstead Theatre auditorium when I saw ‘Losing Louis’. I wonder if the laughs will come in different places when it plays to a less homogenous audience at the Trafalgar Studios right in the centre of London – in the shadow of Nelson’s Column itself!

‘Losing Louis’ is at the Trafalgar Studios at the Whitehall Theatre, Whitehall, London SW1 from Wednesday 23 February. It’s booking to 25 June and the box office number is 0870 060 6632. And Antony Sher's one-man play 'Primo' based on Primo Levi's 'If this is a man', transfers from the National Theatre to the Hampstead Theatre, opening there on 23 February, where it runs until 19 March. Again there are returns only for this sell-out show. An interview with the writer/performer is due to appear on this website to coincide with the launch of Sher's book about 'Primo' at London's Jewish Book Week in March. The Hampstead Theatre has a website at www.hampsteadtheatre.com. 

And the news is that Jewish writer/director Mike Leigh is working on a new play for the National Theatre. It's due to open there in September 2005.

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    David Horovitch and Alison Steadman in ‘Losing Louis’photo :Robert Day

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