Tony Britten using the original play of the same name by Jura Soyfer, translated by Horst Jarka; music by Jimmy Berg, Tony Britten, Herbert Zipper, lyrics by Jura Soyfer, translated by Tony Britten
Music Theatre London
Jack Studio Theatre

Benjamin Chandler at Hupka and Sam Denia as Pistoletti Credit: Davor Tovarlaza @the_ocular
Olivia Benjamin as Helli Ultmann Credit: Davor Tovarlaza @the_ocular
Taylor Danson as John Lehmann Credit: Davor Tovarlaza @the_ocular
Sam Denia as Jimmy Berg Credit: Davor Tovarlaza @the_ocular
Joshua Ginsberg as Jura Soyfer Credit: Davor Tovarlaza @the_ocular
Benjamin Chandler at Hupka Credit: Davor Tovarlaza @the_ocular

With Astoria, Tony Britten has created a hybrid piece. It is a play within a play, but in this case the play that is enveloped by Britten's own words is one by young, communist, Jewish playwright Jura Soyfer.

Soyfer was an unapologetically political writer in 1930s Austria. As a journalist and theatre writer, he satirised the leadership of the day, principally far right, anti-communist and pro-Catholic fascists flapping ineffectually against the force of Austrian Nazism that would have this vulnerable young country fall in with Germany.

Britten employs Soyfer’s Astoria, for which read Austria, a caustically mocking play through which to see the country's failings, as a tool to draw parallels with the world's present day all-apparent shift to the political right.

In this, Britten is largely successful albeit that even delivered in its original style of political cabaret, Soyfer’s Astorian absurdism occasionally weighs heavy. Not for nothing does Soyfer get teased for being like Bertolt Brecht in Britten's words.

Set during the period that Soyfer's plays were being staged at Vienna's ABC Theatre (some two or so years ahead of the Anschluss), Britten's own play orbits around Soyfer's parody in stark contrast to his predecessor's fictional Astoria.

This very real world is inhabited by Soyfer, the musician and sometime musical collaborator Jimmy Berg, Soyfer’s fiancée Helli, foreign correspondent (and eventually publisher) John Lehmann and Martin Miller who would later help get Soyfer’s work staged in London.

Through them, we are offered some political context, perhaps too mired in detail, but with hints of the day-to-day experiences, bringing to life the personal risks that Soyfer and his associates took to have their voices heard.

There is something easily familiar about the setting, which echoes Isherwood and Cabaret, particularly with the introduction of Lehmann's casually guarded homosexuality and the songs delivered by Sam Denia's charming Berg, with some talented piano-playing on display.

Within the comfort of this setting, though, Britten's focus is unclear. As a champion of Soyfer's work, Britten's enthusiasm for his subject has somewhat clouded his vision and, once Soyfer has been imprisoned for the final time, the play all but loses itself along with its hero.

The end comes unnaturally through an overlong epilogue closing with Soyfer's friends singing his last song written with fellow Dachau prisoner Herbert Zipper, derisively based on the camp motto "work sets you free".

It is a contrivance that works better on paper than in practice, but it is not this memorialising of Soyfer himself that lingers. He stood as a warning light in a period of darkness; what an indictment that, nearly a hundred years on, the same shadows threaten.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti

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