Author: Hannah Moscovitch
Headlines refer to ‘swarms of immigrants’, the refugee crisis grinds on, and politicians euphemistically champion ‘British values’. The award-winning Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is painfully relevant in Brexit Britain. Telling the story of playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s grandparents, who arrived in Canada fleeing the pogroms of early twentieth-century Europe, it asks a host of questions that are as relevant here, today, as there and then: what does it mean to belong to a country? What happens when your homeland is no longer safe, but nowhere else is especially welcoming either? And how do people go on when they’ve been through the worst?
We are welcomed into the show by its charismatic narrator, Ben Caplan, who is simply known as the
Wanderer. He appears from the roof of the set – a shipping container – and then unfolds its doors to reveal the band within. For this is a musical show, or perhaps a play-meets-gig: Caplan, with his melodic growl, both controls and comments on the story, as two of the band put down their instruments and become the lovers, Chaya and Chaim. Against a backdrop of chests and suitcases, knick-knacks and old blankets, their meeting, courtship and marriage are played out by these two performers, Dani Oore and Mary Fay Coady. They also accompany the action on the violin and clarinet respectively. Both are pitch-perfect through the tender ups and devastating downs of impoverished refugee life, making us laugh with recognition at their arguments, and cry with them in their tragedies.
Throughout, Caplan’s Wanderer glosses the action with his asides, details, and lists of Jewish cultural practices. He is the eccentric frame to this simple family portrait. Importantly, he can also speak directly to us about the connections between Chaya and Chaim’s story and our own lives. A scene in Chaim’s life leads the Wanderer into a megaphone-wielding satirical rant about ‘Canadian values’, barely audible above the thrashing of the band, but instantly familiar in 2018. Later, he’ll sing a lament, or get lewd enough to make us squirm and giggle. His all-seeing presence is at once charming and challenging, and his voice is mesmerising.
While always recalling traditional Jewish klezmer, the music of Old Stockis varied in style: from ecstatic wailing clarinets, through jazzy washboard-backed hoedowns, to the plaintive cries of Caplan’s Hebrew recitation. It bends to Caplan’s storytelling, and moulds itself into the contours of Chaya and Chaim’s lives – a hook that pulls us into their world. Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry’s lighting is atmospheric, turning the shipping-container into an imaginative playground, and shifts continually to allow the performers to move between song, drama and narration. Heartbreaking and joyous by turns, Old Stock is a simple, beautiful, relevant story, told with captivating skill.