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ELEANOR MARX: The Jewess of Jews Walk (Susan Elkin reviews)

By Lucy Kaufman. Produced and directed by Jonathan Kaufman for Spontaneous Productions Theatre Company in association with Kirkdale Bookshop.

The youngest daughter of Karl Marx, Eleanor lived in Jews Walk in Sydenham jokingly describing herself as “The Jewess of Jew’s Walk.” She was the first translator of Ibsen and Flaubert into English, an indefatigable campaigner and political theorist. Lucy Kaufman’s interesting play is based partly on Rachel Holmes’s recent biography of Eleanor and presents her as an intriguing personality and achiever in her own right rather then simply being a post script to a famous father. And the story is a pretty gritty tragedy.

At the centre of this five-hander is an outstanding performance from Sarah Whitehouse as Eleanor “Tussy” Marx. She is variously brittle, incredulous, impetuous, flirtatious and distressed. Totally convincing, she finds a quality of stillness in the character. When others are speaking you can sense the intensity of Whitehouse’s listening. It’s a huge role – it’s a 2-hour, 35-minute show and Whitehouse is rarely off stage – which she sustains with nicely controlled energy.

The support cast is pretty strong too. Kirsten Moore scuttles about and speaks with a nasal twang as Eleanor’s beloved maid and quasi friend. Moore also stage manages the show. David Sayers is chilling as Eleanor’s deceitful and abusive common law husband. Although the psychology is hard to take – what on earth does she see in him? – the acting is exemplary. I admired the warmth which Simeon Oakes finds in Eleanor’s friend and half brother, Freddy (although his identity and relationship to Eleanor needs spelling out sooner) and the warm plausibility of Doctor Shackleton played by Robert Maskell.

I applaud the set and costumes too. Designers Abby and Alice have made nice use of the wide, quite generous playing space and used enough period furniture to suggest a late Victorian interior. And the clothes are lovely – especially Whitehouse’s opening scene peacock dress.

Spontaneous Productions is a Sydenham-based company and several members of this all professional cast live locally. The multi-use venue belongs to Lewisham Borough Council and deserves to be better known.

Generally a good evening then although the play is too long for the ground it covers. A good editor would cut it by 30 minutes. It burns too slowly at the beginning and there are several superfluous digressions.

First published by Sardines:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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