The Rubenstein Kiss

By James Phillips

A shot from the production of The Rubenstein Kiss
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A joint production with our sister inclusive company Pepper’s Ghost. Based on the story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed for espionage in 1953 in New York’s Sing Sing prison this passionate play takes the audience on a rollercoaster journey of emotions and sympathies. The play moves between the 1950s and the 1970s and explores the mysterious corridors of power to reveal a family’s anguish and their quest for answers and atonement. Were the Rosenbergs the victims of the greatest miscarriage of justice or traitors who put lives at risk and deserved their fate?

This was a joint production with our sister inclusive company Pepper’s Ghost. Joint production offer the chance for non professional actors to work with professional actors in an exciting collaboration.

The Rubenstein Kiss

It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed “The Rubenstein Kiss” – the latest collaboration between Pepper’s Ghost & The Play’s The Thing theatre companies – that I barely felt the length. I’ll admit that when James told me on the way over that it was close to three hours in duration, I blanched at first! Even as an avid theatre-goer, three hours is quite a stint!

So... why didn’t I notice the epic length? Two things, really. First, the story. And secondly, the performances. I was gripped enough by both that the time almost flew by, high praise indeed!

The story. I knew nothing of the real-life events on which the play was based (the Rosenberg Trial), so I had no idea where the developing strands were taking us, which certainly helped me stay engaged. It’s an extremely compelling tale of personal beliefs – but moral rather than political – and very few local companies would have the ambition and awareness to take on a play like this – written by a contemporary British playwright (James Phillips, born 1977!)... I’ve hailed Pepper’s Ghost / TPTT for their choices of production before, but it’s worth repeating.

But without the performances, it would have just been an interesting historical tale explored at great length. And even for these two companies who regularly give us such good performances, this was something special.

It was a small enough cast that for once I’m able to praise each of them individually. You really felt the strength of the uncomplicated love between Esther (Tracy Watchorn) and Jakob, played with fascinating controlled stillness by Bart Gamber. Chris Szuca played the brother whose testimony condemned them as often-confused but never cartoon-stupid, which could have been a temptation. His wife Rachel (Susan Lee Burton) wore the pain of her situation bitterly, and Paul Blackwell’s FBI Agent Cranmer was a wholly plausible Bureau Man with a streak of Humanity.

In the “present day” (1975), Sorcha Rattigan’s Anna journeyed from lively flirtation to tortured doubt, while Kevyn Connett made Matthew Rubenstein a painfully believable mixture of raw-nerved passion and sad wisdom. All seven actors were consistent and nuanced in their roles, it really was a top notch ensemble effort. And considering the dangers of pacing in a piece of such proportions, all credit must go to the director Rosemary Hill for the tempo, on top of everything else.

But the technical side was equally responsible for the fluidity of the production. Kevin Jenkins’s intriguing set was unobtrusive but visually arresting and Guy Jones’s lighting design subtle yet effective. The scene changes were accompanied by a slide-show which helped signpost the action to either the 40s/50s and 70s, but also created a very tangible mood to anchor the story into the Real World™.

Overall, I’d describe the play as “thought-provoking”. Even now I’m not sure what I think about the ethical ambiguities of the characters, and I’m definitely left with a sense of wanting to go away and read up on the Rosenbergs to see where the lines of fact and fiction lie – not that it necessarily matters! But I do like to have the grey matter exercised, which this did in spades - a really good evening’s entertainment, great stuff.

Matthew Taylor
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