Alone in Berlin

Alistair Beaton, based on the novel by Hans Fallada
York Theatre Royal, Royal & Derngate, Northamption and Oxford Playhouse
York Theatre Royal

Denis Conway (Otto), Jessica Walker (Golden Elsie) and Charlotte Emmerson (Anna) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Joseph Marcell (Inspector Escherich), Jay Taylor (SS Officer Prall) and Jessica Walker (Golden Elsie) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Joseph Marcell (Inspector Escherich), Jessica Walker (Golden Elsie) and Denis Conway (Otto) Credit: Manuel Harlan

I haven’t read Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin (also known as Every Man Dies Alone), but I’m aware that it’s held in high regard by those who have. A semi-fictionalised account of small-scale rebellion in WWII-era Berlin, the book portrays a side of German experience that we are less accustomed to seeing on stage and screen: that of ordinary German people who voted Hitler into power but later regretted their choice.

Like the original novel, Alistair Beaton’s adaptation focuses on a middle-aged working-class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel (Denis Conway and Charlotte Emmerson)—themselves based on a real-life couple named Otto and Elise Hampel—who have lost faith in the Nazi party. They voted for Hitler because he promised to rebuild Germany, which had been humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, but the scales have fallen from their eyes following the death of their only son.

In a small act of resistance against the Fűhrer, the Quangels begin to write and distribute anti-Nazi postcards, sticking them up all over Berlin. Consequently, it falls upon a conflicted Gestapo inspector (Joseph Marcell) to track down the traitors and eliminate them.

There is much to admire in James Dacre’s handsome production. The play is stuffed with fine performances, particularly from Denis Conway (so terrific in The Lieutenant of Inishmore two years ago) and Charlotte Emmerson. Both are utterly convincing in the roles of grieving parents, and throughout the production we get the sense of two people rediscovering their love for each other after years of neutrality.

Julius D’Silva and Clive Mendus are suitably weasel-like as a pair of chancers looking to exploit the lack of law and order in Hitler’s Germany, and Abiola Ogunbiyi is genuinely moving as the grieving fiancée of the Quangels’ deceased son.

Joseph Marcell gives an elegant performance as a morally compromised Gestapo officer who bridles at the cruelty of Jay Taylor’s heartless SS officer. Throughout the production, events are observed by Golden Elsie—the winged statue that sits atop the Victory Column—who is memorably embodied by Jessica Walker, whose androgynous attire puts one in mind of the Emcee from Cabaret.

The production is also visually striking thanks to Jonathan Fensom’s stark set, which is complemented by Charles Balfour’s moody lighting. Projections taken from Jason Lutes’s masterful graphic novel Berlin (2018) add another layer of interest.

I wanted to like this production more than I did, but the whole thing left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The idea of having Golden Elsie sing Weill-inspired songs between scene changes is an intriguing one, but in practice I found the songs rather dreary.

While I can appreciate Beaton’s decision to streamline a lengthy novel by focusing on the main protagonists, the end result lacks the dramatic texture that a more ambitious adaptation—with additional characters and subplots—might have yielded.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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