Mike Leigh’s new play, Two Thousand Years, isn’t quite up to his usual standard. It’s not terrible, but it feels as though it was yanked from the director’s improvisatory workshop when it was still in the development stage. It’s about a family of secular north London Jews, and, from the first, everything about them is slightly wrong. Their accents are too adenoidal, almost as if they’re extras in an am-dram production of Fiddler on the Roof, and they use so many Yiddish words you get the impression that each member of the cast has swallowed a Yiddish–English dictionary. (My wife, whose father is a secular north London Jew, was as unfamiliar with these words as the rest of the audience.) Of course, many of Leigh’s characters have this exaggerated, cartoon-ish quality — think of the ghastly Beverly in Abigail’s Party — but the caricaturing doesn’t feel deliberate in this case. It just feels clumsy, as though the company couldn’t be bothered to do any proper research.
Initially, Two Thousand Years seems to be about what happens when the central couple’s grown-up son, Josh, suddenly discovers Orthodox Judaism. He stubbornly refuses to explain himself — he just meanders about looking angry and defiant in his brand-new skullcap — but his parents interpret his behaviour as an affront to their liberal, left-wing values. ‘It’s like having a Muslim in the house,’ his father says. For some reason, though, this set-up is never paid off. The play veers off in a completely different direction when Michelle, the wife’s socially ambitious sister, makes an unexpected appearance in the second half. Instead of exploring what happens when a fairly complacent, secular group of people are challenged by someone demanding a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, Two Thousand Years ends up being yet another opportunity for Leigh to vent his rage at lower-middle-class social climbers.