Camp Siegfried

Bess Wohl
Old Vic

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Luke Thallon as Him and Patsy Ferran as Her Credit: Manuel Harlan
Luke Thallon as Him and Patsy Ferran as Her Credit: Manuel Harlan
Luke Thallon as Him and Patsy Ferran as Her Credit: Manuel Harlan
Luke Thallon as Him and Patsy Ferran as Her Credit: Manuel Harlan
Patsy Ferran as Her and Luke Thallon as Him Credit: Manuel Harlan

Award winner Bess Wohl’s new play, here getting its première, is an American love story set in 1938. It charts the relationship between a seventeen-year-old boy and a girl who is one year his junior. Significantly, he has German parents and she has a German mother and they meet at the titular Camp Siegfried.

Camp Siegfried, close to Yaphank on Long Island, was one of several summer camps set up by the German American Bund in the 1930s offering young people sports, games and hiking, celebrating a German identity and at the same time an indoctrination in Fascist ideology.

She lives for the summer on Hitler Street, he on the corner of Hitler and Goebbels, real camp addresses. Healthy and Aryan in his Hitler Youth style uniform, he has been here before. She is a first-timer. He is bursting with confidence and enthusiasm, she is all nerves, not really ready for this.

As she develops her German language skills, she grows in confidence and gets chosen to give a speech to a rally where she believes Hitler himself to be in her audience. Endorsing Fascist concepts, she sees the way forward to make America great again and ends with an “Heil Hitler!”

It is a tale of seduction as well as indoctrination. The Bund organisers encourage campers ”to be social”, a euphemistic encouragement to help breed a master race.

She gets jealous when he takes another girl into the woods. He makes a confession, realises how easy it is to turn to violence. On a panic trip to New York, she finds the kindness of others changing her mindset and becoming disillusioned, but he stays Fascist, his disillusion is with America.

While the plotting seems a little contrived, there is both point and poignancy in the writing and this is matched in the vibrant performances of Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran as the young couple. This seems perfect casting. From an opening with them far apart on opposite sides of the stage, they are drawn passionately together, their reality played out against Rosanna Vize’s stylised setting: a curtain of vertical slats that could be the trees of the woods of the camp site.

Katy Rudd’s direction ensures that this personal story is as much about now as about history. Camp Siegfried’s succession of short scenes plays 90 minutes in a single act. In unearthing a largely forgotten piece of US history, it is a reminder that Nazi sympathies were bred here too and can still be.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton