How can a review do justice to a show as special as Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story? It probably can’t but I am attempting to rise to the challenge.
Louisa Adamson’s ingenious and evocative set fits into a shipping container, immediately transporting us back in time to Canada in 1908. The beauty and detail in both her set and the costumes hint at the theatrical alchemy ahead.
Playwright Hannah Moscovitch has dug into her own family history to bring to life the story of her paternal great grandparents Chaya and Chaim. There is a truthful humanity inherent to the piece that is born from a deep respect and love for the source material. It is this humanity, balanced with humour, and the most specific of grounding details, that makes this such a life-affirming and vivid journey for those lucky enough to experience it.
Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan and Christian Barry, this show blends music with theatre in a gig meets play way. I defy anyone not to want to clap along when invited to. There is a beautiful harmony to the way the different elements are fused together that engages the audience and helps carry us through the darker moments of the story.
Ben Caplan is the charismatic Wanderer, an omniscient narrator who guides and educates us through the story with an energetic combination of bawdiness and compassion. He is a playful and reassuring presence, particularly in the tragic moments of the show. He is in fine and expressive voice, with each song pushing the story forward and adding to the emotional intensity. Many of the songs uplift and energise, while the quiet simplicity of ‘Lullaby’ brought me to tears.
Eric Da Costa is wide-eyed and endearing as Chaim. Various triggers cause his trauma to leak into the present, through these “cracks” we travel back with him to witness the fate of his family. These moments are all the more heartbreaking because we are not left to dwell too long on them, and these glimpses into the darkness of his past, help illuminate the character of this gentle and optimistic man.
Mary Fay Coady is a magnificent Chaya, her nuanced performance capturing the passion sitting behind the stoic and impassive face she presents to the world. You can understand why Chaim is so enamoured with her. She is fierce and strong, yet insecure and damaged by her own experiences. Theirs is no rose-tinted romance, the bluntness with which we witness their struggles to connect with each other make this an all the more believable love story.
Throughout the show there are 5 people on stage. In addition to playing Chaim and Chaya, Da Costa and Coady are also musicians, joining Jeff Kingsbury (drums) and Kelsey McNulty (keyboard and accordion) to form the show’s talented band. As I’ve previously mentioned, this feels like a gig/play fusion, and the integration of music and storytelling gives Old Stock a very distinctive feel. I could not resist buying a copy of the soundtrack, and it is playing as I type.
While Old Stock is a specifically Jewish refugee story set during the times of the Pogroms there is a universality in the details of the refugee experience that transcends both time and people. I myself am the grandchild of refugees and there was so much I could relate to in this piece, while also opening my eyes to the very specific details of the Jewish Canadian experience. Given the current refugee crisis, Old Stock makes for timely and urgent viewing.
With its themes of death, discrimination, disease and displacement some may be nervous that this might make for a grueling night of theatre, but the raw humanity and compassion of Old Stock make it a life-affirming and uplifting experience. I can not recommend it highly enough.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story runs at Wilton’s Music Hall until Saturday 28th September.