During the first half of this new play by Mark Hayhurst, I found it difficult not to compare the work to Chichester's most recent visit to Nazi territory – the chilling revival of Brecht's Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui. Compared with that play, and despite the moments of brutality, there's a slight feeling of being on safe ground here. Good and bad are fairly clearly delineated, the differences between the three political prisoners imprisoned together feel contrived, and I agree with the critic who regarded it as just a bit too convenient that one of them happened to be carrying a false moustache. None of it is badly done but despite the cast's best efforts I felt uninvolved.
But after the interval one of those curious theatrical twists happened. Not in terms of the play which remains on fairly safe, familiar ground, but in terms of engaging me. Penelope Wilton playing Irmgard Litten has at last been allowed to send books to her imprisoned son. She describes going to see a bookseller and, in a moment which is madness in the new Germany, telling him who the books are destined for. The bookseller refuses to take any money. It's moving because it's such a small, almost pitiful gesture and yet, in a country in which you are no longer free to speak such things take on a strange resonance. The second thing that adds power to Act Two is the realisation that Wilton is not going to win. It's obviously deluded to imagine that she will, but not knowing the story one madly hopes for it. John Light's Dr Conrad, the Gestapo officer with whom Wilton is forced to struggle, is convincingly enigmatic and thus fosters the delusion that there may be some sane Nazis. The final meeting between Wilton and Martin Hutson's Litten brutally snatches away any such escape.
As ever the Minerva is a wonderful place for great acting for the simple reason that eyes can meet yours directly, and pin you back in your seat with no escape. Penelope Wilton is very fine here – Hayhurst is at his best in narration (perhaps a mark of his documentary background) and Wilton has many telling moments of this like the bookseller one already mentioned. Martin Hutson as Litten gives a moving depiction of how, in the worst of circumstances, we may find courage we did not know we possessed. John Light's Gestapo officer I have already mentioned. Also worthy of particular note are David Yelland's Lord Clifford Allen and Allan Corduner's Fritz Litten (Wilton's husband). Yelland plays the deluded British pacifist of a certain class to perfection. The gulf that opens up between him and Wilton effectively conveys the incapacity of large sections of the British ruling class to recognise the character of Nazism during the 30s. Corduner's Fritz deserves more than the play gives him. As a Jew who has converted to Christianity he clearly faces a threat potentially as acute as that facing his son, and the play would have been strengthened I think by exploring this further. It certainly ought to have found some way of indicating his fate.
Design (by Robert Jones) and direction (Jonathan Church) are generally sound with some moving touches – the SS men turning their backs but nevertheless allowing physical contact between mother and son at the final meeting is particularly well done. I did wonder though what my views would have been if seated on the far right of the auditorium since a lot of the action takes place in a corridor on the other side of that stair railing.
This isn't a play quite of the first rank. It is a little bit too safe in its subject matter and doesn't quite get right those questions of which parts of the story to tell. But it is powerfully performed, and has enough punch in it to transcend those shortcomings. It would deserve a London transfer, and is well worth catching if it gets one.