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Second Temple | Riverside Studios

Sophie Stemmons’ play Second Temple takes us into the multigenerational home of 20-something year old Rachel as her dysfunctional family attempt to share the first Hanukkah together since the death of Rachel’s grandfather. What could possibly go wrong?

The key thing to take away from Second Temple is that it is a genuinely funny and entertaining evening, and the show shines during the moments of uniquely crafted dark comedy. Such moments include Rachel’s mother, Sarah (Rachel Gaffin), refusing to begrudge her son for playing video games because he is shooting at “Nazis” and “it’s never too late for revenge” or Rachel’s cousin Bathsheba (Em Lawrence) suggesting that she didn’t know her grandmother “knew enough about lesbians” to hate them. Sparky and satirical one-liners like these really gain the audience’s attention and bridge a clever gap between social commentary and comedy which audiences respond to.

The rising action takes place as the family struggle to light the menorah for Hanukkah, made even more difficult by the absence of their patriarch and the sudden power cut. There could have been a good opportunity here to lower the lighting state further and see what a play set around just the light of the menorah would look like, and see how that could help raise the stakes within the play and create an atmosphere of acute tension. Second Temple sometimes boasts moments that are reminiscent of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County mixed with a healthy dash of Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner, however some direction with light and a slickening up of the action and dialogue on stage might add more palpable tautness and pace to the show.

The cast have great chemistry and energy with clear dedication to their characters and the inclusion of multigenerational families and the trials, conflicts and emotional labour of being in such a family is a refreshing thing to see brought to the festival stage. However, the script sometimes feels a little bit too ambitious, with many storylines packed into the one hour-long slot.

Along with a ticket to the show, audiences receive a programme with a Writer’s Note where Stemmons touches on the story of her Jewish-Iraqi grandmother, whom the play “pays homage to”. It is revealed that the character, Leah and her journey to Leicester from Baghdad in the early 1950s echoes the journey of Stemmons’ own grandmother and indeed, Leah seems to be the heart and origin of Stemmons’ piece. Perhaps it could be an excellent idea to trim down some storylines of the supporting cast and lean into the development of the storyline of Leah (played with commitment by Shirel Stemmons) as this character’s journey seems the richest and most intriguing.

Despite being set during a power cut, this funny, characterful and relatable show is alight with potential and it will be interesting to see how Second Temple continues to grow from here. Second Temple is playing at Riverside Studios as part of the Bitesize Festival from the 16th - 18th of February 2024. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


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