A comedy on the creative destruction of Thatcherism

Sara Kestelman acting in Filthy Business
Sara Kestelman: a standout performance

Filthy Business
Written by Ryan Craig, directed by Edward Hall
Playing at Hampstead Theatre until 22 April. Tickets from £10 to £35. Call 020-7722-9301 or see HampsteadTheatre.com

Superficially, Solomon Rubber is the epitome of a family business. Built up from scratch by former refugee Yetta Solomon (Sara Kestelman), and staffed by her sons Nat (Louis Hilyer) and Leo (Dorian Lough), as well as their sons Mickey (Callum Woodhouse) and Gerard (Jack Bannon), it sells industrial rubber products in London.

However, it quickly becomes apparent that poor business practices, bad strategic decisions and low-cost competition mean it is barely surviving. Worse, every time Leo and Mickey try to innovate, or break away from the stifling embrace of the family, Yetta ruthlessly intervenes to stop them.

Over a period of 14 years, from the late Sixties to the early Eighties, Yetta’s machinations, ranging from blackmail to assault, reduce her children to shells of their former existence, leaving them crippled and at death’s door. Indeed, the environment is so toxic that when the company is finally put out of its misery, it is clearly a cause for celebration, rather than mourning. In a similar vein, the play makes the wider point that the “creative destruction” of Thatcherism and gentrification were necessary for both London and Britain, even if many people lost out in the process.

Of course, this is primarily a comedy, not a social commentary or a case study of economic change. And Craig’s hilarious dialogue and his wonderful characters fill the play with laughs and infuse it with a comic energy. While the acting is generally strong throughout, Kestelman delivers a standout performance as the Machiavellian matriarch. There are also some unforgettable moments, such as the family’s awkward attempts to react positively to the news that they have a previously undiscovered member (Keenan Munn-Francis), and his subsequent bewildered reaction.

What the reviewers said

Craig has written “a rollicking story of intergenerational strife and familial love” while director Edward Hall “delivers spade-loads of near-farcical humour, particularly in the breathless second half”, says Fergus Morgan in The Stage. However, “any wider social relevance is lost among maelstroms of fights, fires and fleeting romances”. Yet despite the “chunks of expositions” and “some clumsy scenes”, says Suzi Feay in the Financial Times, Kestelman, in “the blistering central role”, carries the day.

She does, agrees Michael Billington in The Guardian. “Kestelman gives a performance that crowns a career that has taken her from Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to some of the toughest modern drama”. At the end, “the house rose to Kestelman who, as the battling but ultimately purblind Yetta, gives us a modern Mother Courage”.