I Am a Camera
John van Druten
Cornelius Cooke Productions
Rosemary Branch Theatre
I was a little surprised to see lettered on the back wall of the set of this play set in Berlin in the 1930s "Our Last Hope: Hitler". It is not a scrawled slogan but a neatly lettered reminder to the audience of what Germany was thinking. But does an audience really need reminding of the Nazi threat? Perhaps it does, for it is over sixty years since we 'won' the Second World War and to expect real knowledge of what things were like before is like expecting the audiences who saw this play when it premiered on Broadway in 1951 to have a detailed knowledge of the political background to the siege of Khartoum and the Anglo-Egyptian war which were an equivalent time before this play was written to what has now passed since Hitler's rise to power.
I Am a Camera is based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, just as this play in it turn was part source for the musical Cabaret, but while the book and both shows draw their material from Isherwood's time in Berlin in 1931, they are not biography and the adaptations are very different.
Isherwood was one of the world's best known homosexuals and his sexuality was a significant element of his life in the German capital but there is nothing in Van Druten's text to suggest that. Indeed, when it premiered in the West End in 1954 any such content would almost certainly have been censored by the Lord Chamberlain's office. Any such reason for Van Druten's Chris not having any interest in girlfriends would have been dependent entirely upon performance and that is the case with this revival. Mark Jackson's engaging Chris avoids the especially camp; he has a light touch and an over-eagerness that might be picked up even by those not gaydar-equipped but he would probably 'pass' much more easily than the real Christopher, especially in a world that only thought of queens as queer.
He is beautifully matched by Vicki Campbell's Sally Bowles, a bundle of energy who never gives herself time to worry about the trouble she's getting herself into and always confident that someone else will solve any problems. Impossible, but able to wrap people round her little finger. There is another stunning performance from Erika Poole as landlady Fräulein Schneider, a treasure until she's crossed, and used here to represent those Germans who bought the Nazi ideology wholesale, good though she may have been at heart.
Christopher's pupil, daughter of a Jewish department store owner, stands in for the victims of the Third Reich., already assaulted by the brownshirts. Natalie Ball makes her intelligent and sensible; it is totally believable that she can handle Nazi threat but not the sudden discovery of her own emotions. Tom Micklem's Fritz, Chris's gold-digger friend who turns out himself to be Jewish, is not quite so convincing, but that is as much the character as the actor, while Stephen Fawkes's irresponsible American playboy is too much a cipher for the United States' apparent blindness to what was happening in Europe. However van Druten and actress Caroline Wildi get Sally's home counties mother exactly right.
You can't help but like these young things caught up in their hedonistic lifestyle while the storm clouds gather. I Am a Camera is certainly an old fashioned well-made-play but none-the worse for that. Van Druten doesn't develop any political argument - you hardly need to now let alone in 1951 but he lets the political background gradually seep into the play with an awakening for Christopher if not for Sally whom you know is eventually going to absorbed back into the environment she was born into.
"I Am a Camera" runs until 29th May 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton