A moment of reflection amidst the family chaosXander Pang with permission for Varsity

In the top right hand corner of my notebook page, there’s a swirling nest of lines and arrows. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s idle doodling. It’s not. It’s a family tree. ‘Leah’ is printed in a confident, bold script at the top. ‘Sarah’, her daughter, is similarly labelled. Beneath her, there’s ‘Rachel’ and ‘Josh (wanker?)’. But the lines from ‘David’ to ‘Sarah’ have been redrawn three times in the time it took me to work out that they were siblings. Between Bathsheba and David, it’s just scribbles. It took me until the second of Second Temple’s two scenes to work out that David was Bathsheba’s father (not her son or boyfriend or nephew).

“It’s deliberate, decisive, and really fucking funny”

As representations go, it’s not an unjust one. It captures the odd but endearing atmosphere of the play, and the constant shifting of each character in likeability (Sameera Bowers manages to play Leah picking apart Sarah’s every move without the audience ever losing sympathy for this cantankerous old lady). Loyalties shift: Alix Adinall’s Rachel has to deal with the nagging of her mother (played to neurotic perfection by Tabitha Tucker) but is able to comfort Sarah as she bemoans her inability to throw away the old clothes she associates with her father. It took me a while to work out who was who, but to be fair, the characters seemed to be having the same trouble.

Second Temple is the story of a dysfunctional family reconvening for Hanukkah, and the burial of Leah’s husband. Sarah opened the play by pinning up a poster which proudly declared “it’s wine o’clock”, which immediately conferred that this was a character who would steadfastly ignore everything unravelling around her for as long as she could. And that’s exactly what happens: Rachel goes through a break-up (and breaks the golden rule, aka no lesbian should ever ask a tarot deck to weigh in on their love life); David (Dilan Shant) asks if anyone wants tea with increasing frequency and Britishness; and Josh (Jack Hawkins) turns up drunk, late, and clutching a guitar with the terrifying look of a man intimately familiar with Oasis’ back-catalogue.

“There was never a moment in which I wasn’t totally immersed”

It’s no mean feat for a cast to be onstage for such a length of time. I can’t remember a time that Bowers or Tucker left the stage in the hour long first scene. Some plays would stagnate in such circumstances. But the lightning-quick tonal shifts, and each actor’s commitment to being as zany as possible, meant there was never a moment in which I wasn’t totally immersed in the family’s world. It feels unfair to single out a single actor when performances are strong across the board. But Sameera Bowers' portrayal of the matriarch, Leah, is genuinely brilliant. Bowers' comedic timing when Leah cuts across her son’s curious “what are you reading?” with a sung “Goooodbye!” is the sort that I’ve only ever seen in my own deaf-as-a-post grandmother. The ensemble, completed by Esther Welbrock’s Lucy is a steady unit, steered by director Xander Pang through what could easily have been utter chaos. It’s still chaos, of course, but it’s deliberate, decisive, and really fucking funny.


Mountain View

The Welkin: What to expect and is she expecting?

The scene-stealer is Sophie Stemmons’ script. Winner of the 2023 Footlight Harry Porter Prize, Stemmons’ comedy of manners is Meet the Parents if Noël Coward had been involved in script edits. It’s coated in a thick layer of what I like to call “You’ll Probably Hear This on BBC Radio 4 In a Few Years Time”. It sounds odd, to call a script a scene-stealer, but it would be equally odd not to after watching ditzy Bathsheba (Naphysa Awuah) muse, while trying to remember the end of a bedtime story, “she becomes Queen of the Rats, which can’t be right, because I always thought rats were democratically-inclined.” The cast is an extremely talented bunch. I’m sure they could turn even the most lacklustre material into something worth seeing. But the fact is, they’ve already had most of the hard work done for them. This is a script that would be as funny on the page as it was on the stage.

“This is a script that would be as funny on the page as it was on the stage”

There were a few clunky moments. When Bathsheba set off her speaker in the first lighting of the menorah, I wasn’t quite sure what was intentional and what was genuine fumbling. Addinall and Awuah tend to go for stylised, comedic upset, which clangs against the genuinely tragic beats of Bowers and Tucker’s performances. It might have been wise to decide how caricaturish the family should be as a unit – but maybe that’s the point. After all, Second Temple mines a lot of its comedy from dissonance. The comic and the tragic don’t just come together; they’re forced to sit and make small talk under Sarah’s “Live, Laugh, Love” plaque. They’re present in Bathsheba’s anxious reflection: “do you think it was inappropriate to do a DJ set at the funeral?” They’re what will keep Second Temple playing in my head all week (and at the Corpus Playroom until Friday night).

Second Temple is showing at the Corpus Playrooms from Tue 25 to Sat 28 October.