That the family business at the centre of this play is a rubber shop makes for some great gags to bounce off. The matriarch of Edward Hall’s Filthy Business at Hampstead Theatre has built up a world from a stall selling recrafted scraps of rubber at the market to become a successful East London shop and she is bitingly proud of her achievements. Yetta is willing to give anything to keep the shop – and her family – together. Sara Kestleman takes on the role with fight, a rude forthright will and an ambiguous sense of morality. Her strong Slavic accent and assertive identification as British are brilliantly composed together.
This family drama by Ryan Craig is cleverly weaved into the backdrop of the gentrifying East London boroughs through the 60s into the 80s. It’s a time of opportunity. Capitalism arrives in full force and entrepreneurialism is needed to keep up with the competition. Even pragmatic Yetta might not be ruthless enough to face that.
The large cast are a mixed bag. There are moments when the more intimate dialogue drags and the fight scenes are too shouty. But the core action of this play is excellent. Touching moments when Yetta adopts workers into her family tie always tie into her wider scheming. Fights between two generations of brothers (Louis Hilyer and Dorian Lough) and cousins explode and fix, explode and fix. But there is a determined sense of loyalty underpinning their feuds.
The women in this play – a young worker Rosa (Vanessa Babirye) who’s arrived with false papers, two wives, and a young swinging-sixities daughter – give the play sense and grounding beneath the ambition and animosity of their male counterparts. Babirye’s performance and growth as a character is beautiful as Rosa determines her future as a single mother away from Solomon Rubber Co.
Ashley Martin-Davis’ split-level design for the Solomon’s crammed shop and revolve that spins to show their flat gives a perfect sense of history. The beige aesthetic, painted typography and splashes of colour that arrive as contemporary fashion changes embed us in this microcosmic world; a small picture of its time.
Filthy Business is at the Hampstead Theatre until 22 April 2017. Find out more on the Hampstead Theatre website.
Pictured. Dorian Lough and Babirye Bukilwa. Photo: Dominic Clemence