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Review: Old Stock at Sydney Festival

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

By Lali Gill

When I left the the theatre after seeing Old Stock, it was like a hole in my heart was filled, one I didn’t know needed filling, let alone really existed at all. As a Jewish woman, I felt so connected, acknowledged, and seen - this show made me feel less alone, and is easily one of the best displays of art and musicianship I’ve had the honour of experiencing.

We start with a shipping container upstage, the lights are red and dark until Ben Caplan - sporting the most astounding (and real!) beard - appears from the roof of the container and begins the opening number, Traveller’s Curse. The show only gets better from the first line onwards.

Old Stock explores the true story of two Romanian Jews who separately sought refuge in Canada in the early 20th century. We see their relationship develop and we learn about their past through such masterful storytelling that we hardly notice how much we’re actually finding out.

The show is structured so that the two actors (who also play their own instruments!) feel almost like they’re in a panorama presentation given to us by Caplan. This is extremely effective as we feel privileged to be zooming into this story and becoming intimate with the experiences of Chaim and Chaya. The narrative progresses at an ideal pace and is advanced largely through song (almost everything is sung by Caplan), but also through spoken narration, which is perfectly written by playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who brings her family’s true story to the stage through Old Stock. Thanks to director Christian Barry, we are witness to a refreshing way of staging flashbacks - an actor standing alone, looking ahead, whilst the narrator lets us in to their story. We aren’t bombarded with overly emotive or manipulative language or visuals; we’re simply left to feel what we feel.

Caplan, who is at once actor and presenter in a way so honest and raw that it is difficult to separate himself from his character, plays a sort of God-like figure, guiding us through this tale in such an authentic, earnest, yet completely riveting way. I was so engaged - moment by moment - that I couldn’t have told you if it had been five minutes or ninety since the performance began. If heaven exists, Ben Caplan’s voice was born and raised there. His stunning rendition of Lullaby was one of the musical highlights of the show for me, but taking the cake is easily the sung prayer in Hebrew towards the end of the show. A truly breathtaking, raw, and unrestrained few minutes, in which I found myself crying profusely, with one of my hands on my chest, absolutely transported.

In 2019, this story is so relevant it could have almost happened yesterday. Perhaps for me, the message of the show is summed up by a quandary the narrator presents us with: a stranger knocks on your door in the middle of the night and slips a note under it. You cannot read the note for it is not written in your language. What do you do? Do you assume they may need you, or they may kill you?

Old Stock was the best possible first show of 2019 I could have asked for. I urge you to see this, I promise, it’s special.

Production Photo Credit: Stoo Metz Photography

Photo Credit: Prudence Upton

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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