[Business Smarts Required]
It’s East London, 1968, and against all the odds, Jewish entrepreneur and matriarch, Yetta Solomon (Jennifer Ludlam) has built a thriving rubber business. A lavish set vivifies the business’s premises and shop – its worn bricks and mortar seemingly impregnated with the East End’s spirit of elbow grease and hustle, while offcuts of rubber and derivative belts, cushions, mats and straps ensure we never forget the raw ingredients of Solomon’s success.
Having survived persecution in WWII, Yetta’s nerves of steel reign not just over the rubber trade in London’s East End, but over all the obstacles life has thrown at her – economic austerity, dwindling capital and aggressive competition. Her ultimate test, however, is her family. As Britain evolves around her, Yetta struggles to keep her sons’ and grandchildren’s ambitions in line with her own. As they collectively push her to the limits, a ruthless nature and survival instinct is exposed in Yetta, and is expertly exploited by Ludlam to reveal the play’s central preoccupation – the thin, at times imperceptible, line between love and control.
“When you’ve got no nation, no government, no place in the world what have you got? Family. You can’t depend on anything else.” [Yetta Solomon]
Written by British playwright Ryan Craig, whose own family background provided inspiration, Filthy Business was originally performed at the Hampstead Theatre in London in 2017. ATC’s production, directed by Colin McColl, makes an ambitious leap in rendering a context both chronologically and geographically removed from 2018 Auckland, and though there is plenty in this rendition to commend, the play itself is difficult, a difficulty ATC are unable to paper over.
Jennifer Ludlam is a compelling Yetta throughout, her character work captivatingly positing this powerhouse of a woman between the poles of defiant battleaxe and fond-hearted matriarch. Yetta is foul-mouthed, blunt, and devious; loyal; intransigent; powerful; manipulative; soft; generous; determined and vulnerable all at once – Ludlam deftly colours her performance with all of these shades. Andrew Grainger plays her devoted yet downtrodden son Nat, and does an excellent job not only of the cockney accent (this production marks a return of sorts to his former stomping ground), but of brooding in the shadow of his brother Leo (Adam Gardiner), whose military service has pitched him as a hero in the family’s eyes. Gardiner dexterously inhabits both the inflated role created for him by his mother and his wife (a sharp-witted Hera Dunleavy), and the truth of his character’s fallibility.
Filthy Business is a dense play with a lot in the way of familial squabbling, sibling rivalry, and the power dynamics peculiar to families where personal identity and collective economic survival are enmeshed within the family business. Nat and Leo’s relationship is dominated by jealousy, claustrophobia and the desire to prove themselves to Yetta, with all three actors mining the writing for opportunities to get under each other’s skin.
The sheer density of the writing, however, very often doesn’t do the characters many favours. Their plights are complex, but offer few empathetic footholds for the audience to step into; they are given to ranting, and there is little space in the script to allow the actors a chance to win over our sympathies. Each character is very much on their own quest – for validation, independence, security, love, authenticity – yet the writing seems to compress these problems into the characters, rendering them self-absorbed, selfish, and relatively inhospitable. The actors handle this well, offering buoyant and energetic performances, though the texture – particularly in the second act – is boggy, and it’s difficult to avoid feeling like a soundboard for their various diatribes.
As a Brit, I couldn’t help notice that the accents are variable, although mostly atmospherically convincing. Joe Witkowski as Yetta’s enterprising grandson, Mickey, is a real highlight, his lightness (both of foot and in delivery) providing a very welcome levity in amongst the heavier energy of his relatives. Meanwhile Jodie Dorday’s Carol, and Logan Cole’s ill-contained lusting after Holly Hudson’s felicitous Bernice all bring moments of timely and well-pitched comic relief.
Whilst the play is certainly ambitious and addresses themes of racism and segregation in Britain’s passage from the late ‘60’s into the late ‘70’s, it lacks the scope and subtlety to really work into them. Simbarashe Matsche has great presence as Walter and Ava Diakhaby is nuanced and interesting as Rosa, though again the writing itself seems to contain rather than open up the questionability of British values in its exploration of racism in post-war London.
Thanks to the hard work of the cast and direction, there are plenty of enjoyable moments to be had in Filthy Business. It’s just a shame that the writing makes these feel like islands in a rather intense sea of convoluted and introspective agendas.
Filthy Business plays at ASB Waterfront Theatre until 29th August.