Catherine Schreiber Productions
From 18 April 2017 to 22 April 2017
Review by Dave Jennings
According to John Steinbeck, “war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal”. In times when conflict, actual or threatened, is seemingly ever-present in our lives, this outstanding revival of Moira Buffini’s gripping story of the wartime occupation of Guernsey is painfully relevant.
Set on Guernsey in February 1943, two and a half years after the German’s first occupied the island, Carla Goodman’s powerful stage set evokes the declining fortunes of the Becquet family, now living in a run-down cottage while their previous mansion is a billet for the occupying forces.
This provides a suitably sparse backdrop for the unfolding moments of both comedy and terror. These are delivered by a combination of superb acting and the skilful direction of Kate McGregor; small moments in the lives of ordinary people forced together in extraordinary circumstances.
There is a hint of the supernatural as teenage daughter of the house Estelle, played by the excellent Venice Van Someren, chalks a square on the floor and attempts to summon an angel to save the family from its current predicament. However, for all her paranormal pursuits, she remains a typically mischievous teenager who regularly plagues the Germans staying in her old house.
If childish resistance is Estelle’s chosen survival strategy, then her mother Jeanne has chosen a degree of cooperation with the occupiers and it is this that brings the character of Von Pfunz into the story.
Belinda Lang as Jeanne and Paul McGann as Von Pfunz are simply outstanding, both in their own roles and in the scenes they share. The chemistry is tangible; mutual curiosity, veiled contempt, unrequited love and a need to survive are all present as these two characters vividly represent the reality of life under occupation, both for the oppressors and the oppressed.
The situation is further complicated by the presence of Jeanne’s daughter-in-law Lily in the house, an uneasy relationship at best, but made perilous by the fact that Lily is secretly Jewish. Sarah Schoenbeck does a fine job of portraying an isolated young woman, unsure if she is a widow or not, hiding a secret that could cost her life.
It is Lily’s determination to rescue a stranger, a man who has no memory of his past life or even his name, that brings all the disparate threads into sharp and gripping focus and offers the viewer the chance to consider the reality of human nature against the background of war and oppression.
Named Gabriel by the family, the actual identity of Robin Morissey’s character is unknown. Is he the angel summoned by Estelle or a heroic British pilot from a crashed plane? Or is he an SS officer washed ashore, with no memories of his previous indoctrination and therefore no prejudice or hate? Whatever, his presence in the household leads to enhanced fear and tension as each character sees their own wants and needs reflected in him.
Gabriel’s mystery is matched by the enigma of McGann’s excellent Von Pfunz, a man who claims a love of poetry and learning and who claps and laughs uproariously. However, you are always left with the feeling of an underlying menace beneath the joviality and the fear he causes in other characters is tangible.
Every aspect of this production is outstanding and a spellbound audience are given ample reminders about the darker side of human nature, and a chilling insight of the impact of war on ordinary people.