The packed audience at The Old Market leant in expectantly towards an ordinary looking closed shipping container dominating the stage, oblivious to the surprises enclosed inside. All of a sudden, a bearded man with wild hair and even wilder eyes floats above the container as if blown in by the wind. It opens, and Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story begins.
A lively and thought-provoking show that is much a gig as it is theatre.
This Klezmer-folk music theatre mash up tells the tale of two Jewish Romanian refugees, Chaya and Chaim, who are immigrating to Canada in 1908 after escaping from pogroms and sickness in the hope of a better life. Our wild haired guide, The Wanderer (co-creater Ben Caplan), narrates as they take their first steps both as man and wife and as new Canadians.
Old Stock’s narrative speeds along through song after song led by The Wanderer. It’s a real treat to have a live band accompanying him and they brought a high-spirited energy to the stage. Interspersed between the musical numbers are vignettes from Chaya and Chaim’s life, who step out from their positions playing the violin and the woodwinds respectively to breathe life into their characters. These two elements – music and theatre – aren’t always harmonious. The Wanderer’s crude and provocative lyrics and the band’s vigour did, at times, clash with the restrained and understated vignettes. Choosing to always keep the two leads within their, admittedly beautifully decorated, shipping container also made the performance feel, well, contained. I was reminded of a marionette puppet show. Perhaps they aimed for this to be a Brechtian-style alienation device, using the visible artificiality to persuade the audience into a more questioning frame of mind. However, sitting towards the back of the large Old Market theatre, this staging choice left me a little cold and I was left wishing that The Wanderer, the only one allowed out of the container, would wander out a bit further and bring his vivaciousness out into the aisles.
Old Stock is not any kind of rom-com and it’s easy to see that the events are inspired by real life. After all, Chaya and Chaim’s wedding is no fairy-tale happy ending and their lives are full of hardship and heartache even after reaching the safety of Canada. This is the stuff of cold hard reality. Yet, although the true nature of this tale adds an extra depth of poignancy, it’s clear that Chaya and Chaim’s story is not about personal pain, but a deliberate allegory for any number of refugee stories. Dotted out in the foyer and around The Old Market were hand typed notes containing the memories of members of Brighton & Hove’s Jewish Community; emotional recollections of refugee life and gratitude towards the sanctuary they received. These, alongside a post-show talk about contemporary refugee issues, made it even more obvious that Old Stock wishes to inspire both compassion and action in its audience. When the emotional punches come, they do hit hard. Certainly, it would be difficult to not induce a tear or two when addressing the sheer terror of the pogroms, but it is effective nonetheless.
Old Stock may be a love story, but it is less Chaya and Chaim’s love story and more about a love for Jewish culture, a love for tolerance and a love for finding safe refuge and building a new life there. Undoubtedly, it is a lively and thought-provoking show that is much a gig as it is theatre. However, only time will tell if this well-travelled evening of entertainment can inspire real change for refugees struggling to survive worldwide.