BWW Review: MOMMA GOLDA, King's Head Theatre
Thelma Ruby, all 93 years of her, is a force to be reckoned with: a dramatic and comedic talent, a singer and actor and writer who, in her vast and extraordinary career, has worked with the likes of Orson Welles, and taken leading roles on stage and screen.
That's why Momma Golda, which she co-wrote with her late husband, Peter Frye, and stars in at the King's Head Theatre, is so especially disappointing.
Put simply, Ruby's caricaturistic portrayal of Golda Meir, the former Prime Minister of Israel, does great injustice to the source material, and blends comedy and melodrama so unevenly as almost to be making fun of Mrs Meir and the country she led through war.
Momma Golda is set mostly in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War which brought Israel to bloody conflict with its neighbours for the second time in less than a decade. Golda Meir is the commander-in-chief and, having already served in a multitude of important political roles, and being a ferociously persuasive speaker and campaigner, has the entire government at her disposal. She meets with ministers, makes urgent phone calls, and reminisces about her youth and early career.
The Golda Meir that Thelma Ruby channels is a recognisable figure - not as the Prime Minister of Israel, but as a stock character in television and movies: the sarcastic Jewish mother, the headstrong lady with a heart of gold, always ready with a comeback or a rude word in Yiddish.
This trope is underwhelming in the best of circumstances, but in the context of a war story, it is almost inexplicable. Ruby's Meir argues with generals and mourns the deaths of soldiers with a wink and a joke. You don't need to speak Yiddish to know that one does not respond to tragedy with "Oy, gevalt!".
Opposite Ruby is Sean Baker, who plays a variety of roles, including Meir's father, husband, chief of staff, and ambassador to America. In addition to more than a few mistakes in his lines ("air-to-surface missiles"), Baker struggles to differentiate his characters. Both Baker and director Sarah Bergen should have known better than to allow him to play King Abdullah of Jordan, complete with cheesy pan-Arabic accent and nomadic robes.
Thelma Ruby and Sean Baker are accomplished actors, and I don't doubt that they have shone in other roles, and will sparkle again. But in trying to find fun in carnage, their performances in Momma Golda make them seem like collaborators in an edgy and ineffective satire of the very subject they are trying to memorialise.
Photography credit: King's Head Theatre