Jack Rosenthal’s tremendously popular, BAFTA-winning Jewish coming of age comedy is very much in the light drama tradition rather than the weightier stomping ground of the usual Play for Today, though there’s plenty of substance beneath the wry tale of Willesden schoolboy Elliot Green’s pre-ceremonial purgatory at the hands of his Jewish-with-a-capital-Jew family. Types (there’s enough insight in the writing to keep the just the right side of stereotypes) abound – Victor, Elliot’s stoic, cabby dad and nominal head of the household; hardcore Yiddishe grandad, always ready with a benignly bland pronouncement to settle any conflict (“Listen. The way I look at it… there’s two sides to every story!”) and, very much in charge, mum Rita, self-appointed queen of the household and eternal bag of nerves in a frighteningly baroque hairdo.
More sympathetic to Elliot is big sister Lesley (played by Adrienne Posta), but even she’s lumbered with an archetypally boobish, eager-to-please drip of a boyfriend, Harold. With the Sabbath looming ever closer, and the various factions of the family winding each other up something chronic (using all the Jewish verbal tics Rosenthal can pile on – repetition, sarcasm, dud jokes, exasperated complaints directed into thin air, and a liberal sprinkling of yiddish) Elliot retreats into his room, and himself, rehearsing his spech and Torah lesson. Come the big day, in front of a packed synagogue, is the marvelous scene where Elliot is called up, walks forward, and continues walking across the building and out the back door, to shock and bemusement all round. While the family come to terms with his defection – by, of course, winding themselves up even further, while Rita lays almost paralysed with grief – Lesley tracks down Elliot and, in the only genuine piece of communication that takes place in the whole play, gets to hear not only of his nerves but his disillusion with the rest of his family (Lesley: “Dad did it, grandad, Harold…” “Elliot: “They’re not men, Lesley. That’s the whole point. If that’s being a man, I don’t want to be one, do I?”)
Plucking up courage for a return to the family home (with an ineffectually shrugging Rabbi now installed) Elliot gives a tactfully altered version of his reasons for pegging it, not mentioning in so many words why he didn’t feel he could compare to his Dad et al. as a man, allowing them to fill in the gaps in his argument for themselves, as they promptly do (Victor: “Elliot. Barm-pot. To you I seem like a God. A hero. It’s only natural… We’re not all that wonderful. We’ve all got faults. little ones, maybe. But we’ve got them.”) In a heartwarming finale, the Rabbi decides that, as Elliot had recited the Talmud from memory (in a playground, with Lesley as witness) he is a man after all. the final scene, at the reception that evening, sees Elliot deliver a speech lauding his family members, a speech we heard him recite early on, now repeated and dripping with dramatic irony. It’s a lightly emotional piece, but Rosenthal’s sure grasp of character never lets it descend into sentimentality. The story has been ripped off several times (most clumsily by the sickly, preachy American cartoon series Hey Arnold) but never told with as much warmth, genuine understanding and wit as the original. Emess.