Catherine Schreiber Productions
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
From 15 May 2017 to 20 May 2017
Review by Sheila Connor
Guernsey has been occupied by German troops for two and a half years in 1943 when this play begins, and four women are trying to make the best of things surviving however they can, each having a different way of dealing with the situation.
They are living in an old, rather basic, farmhouse having been (we assume) ousted from the rather grand manor which had been their home. Intriguingly, a young girl, Estelle Becquet, is kneeling in front of a lighted candle and drawing a square around her in chalk. It seems that, with no help from any earthly sources, abandoned by even the British as Guernsey was "an island with no strategic importance", she is calling on supernatural powers for help and has created a "square of power" to draw them in.
The more pragmatic housekeeper Lake (Jules Melvin) bustles in deriding her efforts, her own survival instincts lean towards selling black market goods to the Germans. One wonders, briefly, how she manages to get them.
Belinda Lang as widow Jeanne Becquet, with beloved fighter pilot son missing in action, feels it is up to her to keep the family safe, including the rather despised Lily, her Cockney daughter-in-law (Sarah Schoenbeck). Morality has no place in war and, although haughtily elegant and refined, she is willing to sacrifice her body for the sake of a peaceful existence.
Her liaison with a previous German officer leads her to think that this new man, Major Von Pfunz, will expect the same. Believing he speaks no English, she enjoys smiling graciously and offering drinks while delivering withering insults with every sentence, a performance Lang achieves as if born to it but, to her discomfiture, he understands every word.
At this point, far from being the terrifying Nazi Officer expected, I see him as quite jolly and highly amused at Jeanne’s confessions, even quite likeable. A pity she had mentioned that her daughter-in-law is a Jew.
So far we are dealing with superstition, pragmatism, prostitution and fear and, if that isn't enough, a naked male body has been washed up on the beach with no memory of whom he is or where he came from. He speaks perfect English and, more worryingly, equally fluent German, and Estelle, believing he could be the help she was looking for, gives him the name of an angel: Gabriel.
Act two brings a change to the atmosphere as Von Pfunz has become threatening and terrifying as he demands that "the Jew" must be deported. Paul McGann expertly captures the nuances of this strange and complex character who can enjoy a joke and be respectful and polite yet finds pleasure writing poetry describing the horrors of the extermination camps.
With Von Pfunz now menacing, Robin Morrissey’s Gabriel having agonising seizures and Venice Van Someren’s Estelle bouncing defiantly—and dangerously—about like an over-excited frightened puppy, the tension ought to be mounting, but something is lacking. Performances are excellent, but it seems that in order to tell a complex story the dramatic element is overshadowed and the outcome predictable.
An interesting and entertaining evening but leaving a lot of questions and still no answer to the mystery man’s identity. We have to make our own decision on that one.