Bar Mitzvah Boy by Jack Rosenthal, adapted by Amy Rosenthal

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BBC Radio 4, 12 November 2011

Eliot Green (Hugo Raine) will read and sing in Hebrew from the Torah - the scrolls - in the local synagogue in front of family and friends. Later on he will celebrate the event in front of 117 guests at his Bar Mitzvah party. Having spent a year practising for this day, he appears to be well-prepared, but is he mentally ready? Outwardly he acts like a typical thirteen-year-old, being alternately annoying (speaking phrases in English, French and Latin), even though his sister Lesley (Susannah Wise) loathes it, and extremely childlike, wondering whether he is ready to become a man or not, which is what the ceremony represents.

None of his family takes much notice of him. His mother Rita (Tracy-Ann Oberman) cannot stop worrying about the caterers, the ceremony, Elliot’s hair, whether her husband’s and her son’s trousers have been pressed – anything and everything to do with the forthcoming event. Her husband Victor (David Horovitch) wants a quiet life after spending a hard day driving his taxi round London. Lesley thinks of her hair, and how to deal with her boyfriend Harold (Jonathan Tafler), who spends so much time trying to be nice that he annoys everyone. Grandad (Andrew Sachs) treats his son like a little pet, while surreptitiously stuffing his face with sponge cake.

Although ostensibly the centre of attention, Elliot is in fact marginalized – which helps to explain his decision to run out of the synagogue at the very moment when he is expected to begin his peroration. His family’s carefully-laid plans are thrown into chaos, and they immediately blame the boy, without thinking for one moment that it might be their self-interest that prompted him to leave in the first place. Eventually Lesley finds Elliot taking refuge in a local playground, and persuades him to return. The play ends happily with Elliot delivering his peroration – but not in the way his parents expect him to – and addressing the company at the Bar Mitzvah dinner.

Bar Mitzvah Boy makes some telling points about ‘manhood’ and what it entails. For Elliot the prospect of entering into maturity appals him – especially when he looks at the men around him (Victor, Harold, Grandad), all of whom behave like children. They are devoid of self-awareness, despite their fondness for discussing ‘adult’ topics like politics. By contrast Elliot understands that delivering the reading is not designed to please his family but to prove to himself that he can stand on his own two feet. Despite his tender years, he comes to a mature decision.

David Ian Neville’s radio production wisely set the play in its original context of the mid-1970s, a time when gender roles were clearly defined: Rita spends her life as a homemaker, while Victor works all day and makes little or no contribution to domestic life. When Harold volunteers to wash up on a Friday, it is considered something unusual. The text made references to telly icons of the time such as Pan’s People or Kojak; Neville linked the action with extracts from Brotherhood of Man’s hit “Save Your Kisses for Me” – a cleverly ironic move, as the song conjures up an idealistic world of love of companionship that contrasted vividly with what was happening in Elliot’s household.

The cast wisely understood the play’s tragi-comic undertones, and hence did not descend into caricature, even though Oberman obviously enjoyed herself as the neurotic Rita, contrasted with Horovitch’s apparently phlegmatic but equally neurotic Victor. Wise’s Lesley was both standoffish yet affectionate, as she understood the ordeal her brother was going through. Quite why she continued to go out with Tatler’s spaniel-like Harold was one of the production’s enduring mysteries.

This version of Bar Mitzvah Boy was thoroughly entertaining, a vivid recreation of Rosenthal’s original television play, which was first televised in the BBC's Play for Today slot in 1976, and voted 56th in a British Film Institute (BFI) poll of the top one hundred best British television programmes of all time.