Alexis’ play is holy education on benefits of faith schools

IT was a question put to Alexis Zegerman when she was pregnant with her first child that started her brain whirring.

The actress and writer was asked what she and her husband, Peter Graff, were planning to do about a school for the then-unborn tot.

“All the talk was how were we going to educate our child, but it wasn’t something then, obviously, that we were occupied with,” Alexis told me from her London home.

“I realised that it is an enormous topic among parents and that everyone has an opinion on their child’s — and other children’s — education.”

Alexis’ tribulations led her to pen Holy Sh*t, which will run at London’s Kiln Theatre from September 5-October 6.

It tells the story of Simone (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Sam (Daniel Lapaine), a Jewish couple who will do anything to get their daughter into their local Church of England school.

“Most good schools across the country happen to be faith schools, so it raised the question of what happens if the best school locally for a Jewish couple is Church of England,” Alexis said. “What would you do?”

Ironically, Alexis and her husband won’t be sending their children, four-year-old Lola and Morris, one, to a local Jewish school, as they do not live in the catchment area for any Jewish schools.

Alexis actually went to her local CofE school, before moving to a Jewish preparatory school, Hasmonean.

“I was then moved to an awful, private academic prep school to make sure I would get into a good private secondary school,” she recalled.

“My most wonderful experiences were at the CofE school — perhaps it had something to do with the sense of community at both of them.

“I even got to play Mary in the nativity, which was the ultimate Jewish part for a Jewish woman!

“It was the same at Hasmonean, with a lot of dressing up and celebrations.

“That warmth and togetherness really registered with me as a child.”

Faith schools are a pertinent issue and Alexis said that the fact they are selective is “probably not a great thing”.

She explained: “They work best when they are inclusive.

“I have no problems walking into a church — I was in the choir at school and sang in churches.

“I loved performing in the carol service at St Martin-in-the-Fields.

“There can be issues, though, as I have Jewish friends who tried to rent a property near a Jewish school, but they couldn’t find anyone to rent their previous property and they found themselves in a financial mess.”

Alexis was raised in London, the daughter of Adele and Michael Zegerman, who later separated. Her father lives in Norfolk.

Her younger brother, Philip, is a scientist with his own lab in Cambridge.

Alexis’ paternal grandmother escaped to the UK from Germany just before the Second World War, while her paternal grandfather came from Lithuania.

Her maternal grandparents fled the pogroms in Russia.

“My mum left school at the age of 15, as a lot of working-class East Enders did,” added Alexis, who knew she wanted to go into acting from a young age.

“She worked hard to make sure myself and my brother got the education she didn’t have.

“The deal was that I went to university, got a degree and then did a law conversion, if all else failed, so I would have something to fall back on.”

Alexis read English literature at the University of Edinburgh, before she was accepted into the Central School of Speech and Drama.

And, while there, she wrote to Salford-raised film director Mike Leigh, in the hope that he would offer her some work.

After graduating, she did a couple of fringe theatre jobs and also worked as a waitress, a credit controller and an estate agent.

Her big break came in 2005, when she was cast in Leigh’s Jewish-themed play Two Thousand Years, at London’s Royal National Theatre.

She said: “The casting director at the National had seen me in a fringe play, so I guess it was serendipity.

“I ended up playing Tammy and my mother was played by another Jewish actress, Caroline Gruber, who is also from Salford.

“A funny thing happened when we took it to Salford. The moment the lights went up, a person in the audience said, about Caroline, ‘Ooh, doesn’t she look like her aunt so-and-so?’, which was rather marvellous.”

Alexis’ first foray into film came in 2008, when she starred as Zoe in Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, a part for which she won best supporting actress at the British Independent Film Awards.

“It is a phenomenal experience to work with Mike, who is a complete master of his craft,” she said.

“He is incredibly influential and the work he does with his characters and the detail has always resonated with me.”

Her role in Happy-Go-Lucky led to further parts in films such as Storm, Albatross and The Wedding Video, as well as in ITV drama U Be Dead.

Alexis also returned to the stage, appearing in Caryl Churchill’s hugely-controversial play Seven Jewish Children, at the Royal Court Theatre, which was criticised in many quarters for being antisemitic.

It is something Alexis does not agree with.

She explained: “I would not have been part of it had I felt it was antisemitic.

“The play’s director, Dominic Cooke, is Jewish.

“A lot of my mum’s friends, who are on the conservative side saw it and were moved by it.

“Maybe being in the room was a different experience than hearsay. One should be able to discuss Israel and it didn’t feel antisemitic to me.”

Another Jewish role was as Cissie in the revival of Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley, at the Royal Court Theatre.

As well as acting, Alexis is a successful writer.

She has written plays for BBC Radio 4, was the Pearson writer-in-residence at Hampstead Theatre and has written plays which have been performed in the UK and abroad.

Alexis, who also penned the screenplay for the 2010 short comedy The Honeymoon Suite, added: “I love doing a mixture of acting and writing.

“We are about to start rehearsals for Holy Sh*t, so, as a playwright, I was very involved with that, as I was with the auditions.

“When you write for film and television, it is no longer your baby.

“I marvel at what the actors in Holy Sh*t have to do and thank God I am not doing it, but it is nice to dip in and out of acting.”

Her latest role is as Rivka in the upcoming Disobedience — the adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s book about a woman who returns to her strict Orthodox Jewish community for her father’s funeral and begins an affair with another woman.

“I had to wear a sheitel and we filmed in Golders Green, which was eye-opening, having hung out there in my youth,” Alexis said.

“Quite a lot of my part has ended up on the cutting room floor, but that is showbusiness!”

When it comes to British-made Jewish films, there has been criticism as what is perceived to be generalisations and stereotyping.

But Alexis insists that is not the case in Disobedience, nor with Holy Sh*t.

She continued: “The main couple are such well-rounded characters. I think people will immediately recognise themselves or their friends and their own dilemmas.

“It is great when you have an authentic voice writing about their own community.

“I don’t always write about Jewish characters, but, when I do, I hope it comes with a voice of authenticity.”

She is passionate about standing up to racism and took part in the demonstrations in London last Friday against visiting American president Donald Trump.

“It reminded me of my grandma being out on the streets of the East End and marching against Oswald Mosley,” Alexis added.

“It is a shame that history has not been learned from and I do find it depressing that we are still having to battle against antisemitism, but I will stand up against any form of racism.

“We are also still dealing with what is going on in the Labour Party, which I also find upsetting.

“The worrying thing is that I don’t think we are being listened to. We want to feel like the Labour leadership is on top of the issue, but it does not feel like they are.”

As her husband is American and her children hold dual British-American citizenship, does she have any plans to head across the pond and settle Stateside?

“Brexit was an enormous disappointment for me,” Alexis said. “Living in America is a definite option, but my family is in the UK and they are very important to me.”

© 2018 Jewish Telegraph