April 4- 8
On tour until May 20
There’s a nod here to ‘Whistle down the wind’: an unconscious stranger, discovered on the beach in occupied Guernsey, is brought to a farmhouse for shelter. And a touch of the classic poltergeist set up, with four generations of women including a volatile, unhappy teenager; when the play opens, she is engrossed in casting a spell. The Becquets: mother, daughter, and daughter-in-law, along with housekeeper, Lake, have been forced to relinquish their grand home; the last, with matriarch, Jeanne, scrape a living via the Black Market.
A rickety set, creatively done, represents the oppressive, uneasy atmosphere: cellar, kitchen and bedroom standing for Hell, Earth and Heaven. However, the stairs to the latter seem to turn into an escalator with characters shooting up and down, yet sometimes, they take ages. Maybe picky, but that is not the worst of it. That’s the over-indulgence of irony, via misunderstanding and misdirection. It works pretty well the first time, in the scene introducing Jeanne and von Pfunz, except for the caveat that an actor of McGann’s calibre is not going to be used in a virtually non-speaking role. But this device is constantly repeated, fatally so, literally, at the most dramatic moment, stage right, when the focus is stage left. The ending pretty much fizzles out, and even the publicity could be misleading because it looks like McGann is actually Gabriel.
Fortunately, plenty of humour in the caustic dialogue balances the underlying tragedy and helps to lighten proceedings. And the cast are largely quite exceptional, particularly Belinda Lang as Jeanne, splendidly arrogant, sarcastic and brave; prepared to go to any lengths to protect her family, resulting in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome with Von Pfunz, although too bizarre to be wholly convincing. Her partner in crime, Lake, played by Jules Melvin, is admirably stoical and down to earth, in contrast to the mercurial and rebellious Estelle; Venice van Someren’s is a poignant portrayal of a rather exasperating teenager. Sarah Schoenbeck is perhaps the bravest of them all as Lily, a Jewess in constant fear for her life.
Good to see a wartime drama with four strong female roles, each woman, hard-working (in their own way; Jeanne’s ways are nothing like the others), determined and loyal to a fault.
Then there’s the two mystery men, both of them with the potential to turn the world upside down. Robin Morrissey as Gabriel, speaking both English and German perfectly, eventually comes round, yet does not altogether come to life. He does however successfully convey anguish, at the loss of identity, then at two dreadful revelations. And whilst many actors relish the opportunity of playing the villain, McGann has to grapple with an unbelievably complex character: a poetic Nazi; buffoon and bully. The occasional silly giggle does nothing to indicate something sinister, yet he is unquestionably in command, in every way, of every scene in which he appears.
It is he who brings the crowds in, but this first play from Moira Buffini, from 20 years ago, is an early indication of her talent. Overall, plenty to provide intriguing entertainment for the audience, and to tell their friends about.