Spoonfed London ★★★★★

“a beautifully-written look at the life of one man, brought to life by Nashman’s thrilling performance.”

Reviewed by Crystal Bennes

You’d perhaps expect that a play about a gay, Jewish, Hungarian refugee who winds up in the badlands of Canada might have limited appeal to audiences at the Fringe. In fact, had I known more about the show than I did, I might never have gone to see it. But that would have been my mistake, because Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson’s Hirsch is a beautifully-written look at the life of one man, brought to life by Nashman’s thrilling performance.

The Hirsch of the title is John Hirsch, a man who did a great deal for theatre in Canada, and as such is a name which will almost certainly be unfamiliar to anyone outside of Canada. Yet the story told is so much bigger than the simple biography of an eccentric and passionate theatre director, though he is undoubtedly that – if Hirsch represents even a degree of truth. But Hirsch’s story is also the story of the horrors of the Second World War, or any war which displaces families and alters lives. In explaining one man’s fight to protect the value of his chosen art, it’s also the story of how we make theatre, and why it matters. Through Hirsch’s eyes, we’re able to see a way in which we might help to save, not only theatre and the arts, but hospitals and libraries, too.

This remarkable, layered quality is matched by Nashman’s great skill and imagination in bringing the many figures of Hirch’s story to life. Nashman transitions between each character with an incredible lightness of touch from Hirsch’s marvellously-eccentric grandmother and his fearless grandfather to the actor on stage before us, who had a life-changing professional encounter with the great director himself,. The blurring of the line between our narrator and Nashman, though not exactly an original technique, is particularly compelling because you’re never really sure whether Nashman was this man or had these encounters. Like trying to read the details of an author’s life in the characters in their novels, it doesn’t actually matter, but the blurring of lines, between history and the present, truth and reality is skilfully done.

The best way to judge a play about a single individual is to ask a simple question: upon leaving the theatre, do I want to know more about this person? Though Hirsch does not seem at all like the kind of person I might want to be friends with, Nashman and Thompson make a compelling case as to why this man deserves to be the subject of an entire play, and indeed spark an interest in wanting to know more. For, while many others grew up in circumstances as tragic as Hirsch’s, and still others ended their lives the same way (Hirsch died of AIDS in 1989), not half as many can be said to do what he did in the prime of life.