A large red shipping container stands centre stage. As the house lights go down we hear a voice singing from inside it and Ben Caplan’s head, with huge bushy beard and waves of shaggy hair under a purple top hat, appears through the top. Then the container opens to reveal four seated musicians playing a klezmer tune, amidst a cacophony of bits and bobs – clothes, samovar, suitcases, stools and carnival-like strings of lights.

Ben Caplan in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Caplan, a renowned Canadian folk musician, is The Wanderer, a kind of eccentric emcee who acts as the frontman and narrator of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – a man with a growling, mischievous, robust presence, who stands for much of the performance on a platform to the right of the shipping container, chatting directly to the audience and driving the show. The production moves between songs and patter by Caplan, to dialogue scenes in which two of the musicians – woodwind player Dani Oore and violinist Mary Fay Coady – play two Romanian Jews, Chaim and Chaya. (The other two musicians are Graham Scott on keyboard and accordion, and Jamie Kronick on drums).

The story of Chaim and Chaya begins in 1908 at Pier 2 in Halifax, Canada. They are standing in a queue for the sick, as they wait/hope to be let into the country as refugees. Chaim has a rash, which could be typhus. No, says Chaya, it’s just a rash, not the kind you get with typhus. Chaya herself has a cough, which she might have caught as a result of her sister’s tuberculosis but she is pretty sure is just a cough.

Chaim is 19, awkward and inexperienced but is quickly taken with the terse Chaya. She is 25, no-nonsense, practical and grief-stricken, having lost her husband when they escaped through Russia on foot with her family. Whether the authorities will let them into Canada, whether they will marry, and whether two young people who have experienced so much trauma can ever be happy again remains to be seen.

Dani Oore and Mary Fay Coady. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is presented by 2b Theatre Company, from Halifax in Canada. It premiered in 2017 and has toured widely since, arriving in Sydney as part of the Sydney Festival. Based on the true story of playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents, both Romanian Jews who migrated to Canada to escape pogroms and poverty, it includes klezmer-infused songs, most of which were written by Caplan and director Christian Barry.

The story may be set in the early 20th century, but it naturally triggers thoughts of the refugee crisis today. The title of the piece comes from a comment made in 2015 by Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister at the time, about the difference between recent refugees and “old-stock Canadians”, which caused a ruction, with accusations of racism.

The mood of Old Stock shifts between humour from the larger-than-life Caplan, some of it raucous and ribald, to terrible stories about the treatment of Jews in Romania – when Chaim is refused entry to a cinema in Montreal it triggers memories of the slaughter of his family – to the touching love story between Chaim and Chaya, whose faltering relationship is sealed when they almost lose a child. Musically, the songs have a spiky anger, combined with an anarchic, tongue-in-cheek joy. They range from Truth Doesn’t Live in a Book, in which Caplan analyses the Bible and the need for “rabbinical wiggle room” in the real world, to a soft, lilting lullaby.

Running 80 minutes, Old Stock looks into the darkness, but the buoyant music and Caplan’s exuberant, roguish presence off-set the tragedy, offering a sense of optimism for the future. Occasionally, Caplan’s banter feels unnecessarily lewd (his list of umpteen euphemisms for having sex feels overdone). The show also spells out its message in didactic fashion at times, but the scenes between Chaim and Chaya really touch the heart.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story plays at Belvoir St Theatre until January 20 as part of Sydney Festival, and then at Arts Centre Melbourne, January 29 – February 2

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