There are tough old boots, and then there’s Yetta Solomon, the take-no-prisoners, suffer-no-fools Jewish matriarch at the heart of Ryan Craig’s hugely ambitious, at times greatly entertaining but ultimately too-sprawling family drama about a North London rubber-merchants, as viewed first and foremost at the end of the Sixties and then, towards close of play, in the early Thatcherite Eighties.
Yetta – Sara Kestelman giving one of the performances of the year, and her career too – is the quintessential refugee who survived the unsurvivable and then toiled in killer sweat-shops as she made her way in the world from scratch.
She’s larger than life, letting nothing escape her ready-witted, often foul-mouthed notice. But that’s because she has stared death in the face; her rhetoric is rooted in harsh reality. Up close, she’s terrifying; from the comfort of the stalls, she’s terrific value. “When dem bastard Kossacks came to my village I fought back,” this empress of rubber informs a black male visitor who, assumed to be to up no good, she has whacked on the head with some tubing. “Dey set dogs on us. I barked back. I barked louder.” It gets a laugh, as Kestelman stands there, clenched, indomitable, but you can see the history steam off her, and her fighting-spirit flies a topical flag too: she sees herself as a Brit to the bones.
Craig knows this milieu well – this is his background, the shop based on “the one my dad worked in with his extended family”, we’re told. Filthy Business could be his finest play to date, the making of him, but it sorely needs some of the ruthlessness that Yetta has in abundance. It starts off tight, piles on plot, meanders across three acts and loses focus, and at points, with one misjudged behind-the-counter sex-act in particular, doesn’t know its farce from its elbow.
There’s a wonderful bit of scene-setting early on when Yetta fields a customer phone-call inquiring about cushions. She immediately goes on the offensive: “Do we do cushions? What are you, a moron?” She ups the ante further, as a crafty prelude to a placatory and phoney “one-time-only deal” (the discount entailing a lot of concomitant yelling upstairs via an entirely useless internal “speaking-tube”). I yearned, not least on the grounds of retail plausibility, for more interactions with outside clientele, and less internecine strife.
There’s much ado about some missing money, mystery, too, about an arson attack that looks anti-semitic but has the air of an inside job and shenanigans involving premises elsewhere. Explosive male tempers are to the fore – first with sibling rivalry between Yetta’s sons Nat and Leo (their wives thrown into the volatile mix too), then between their boys Gerard and Mickey, who trade blows as their partnership comes unstuck. At moments, I felt as if I was trapped down in the airless, stock-crammed cellar with poor put-upon Monty Minsky (who, together with another machinist called Rosa, furnishes enough material for a six-part sitcom); the core concerns need more oxygen, less foam padding.
All that said, this is valiant and valuable, daring to show Jewish folk on the make, warts and all, even if the second-half tie-in with Eighties entrepreneurialism adds little. Edward Hall directs with his customary élan, while the two-tier set is lovingly realised with period clutter (the designer is Ashley Martin-Davis). Among a strong supporting cast, there’s glinting promise from Callum Woodhouse as sweetly mild Mickey, risking familial wrath with his callow yearning to be a ladies’ hairdresser, and Babirye Bukilwa as Rosa, the underling who battles prejudices of her own to clamber, like Kestelman’s towering, glowering Yetta, to the top of the pile.