Review: All Our Children, Jermyn Street Theatre

It was never going to be an easy play to watch. Stephen Unwin makes his debut as a playwright with All Our Children, a chilling expose of the brutal programme that saw Nazi Germany send thousands of disabled children to their deaths, ostensibly to ease the financial burden on the state. Over the course of one day, we see the situation through the eyes of five characters, each with a different perspective – and leave disturbed and shaken by the horrors human beings are capable of inflicting on each other.

The subject matter sounds grim, and it is – not for what we see but rather what we don’t. There are no children in the play; we never leave the comfortable office of Dr Victor Franz (Colin Tierney), chief paediatrician at a children’s clinic near Cologne. But we come to know them, through the pain of a mother who’s lost her son, the remorse of another who’s realised the patients in the clinic are, after all, “just children”, and through the cowardly attempts of a man who once swore to do no harm to justify sending his innocent charges to be murdered.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

It’s this, more than anything, that really sends a chill down the spine. Franz is an experienced and compassionate doctor; he’s often funny, has an obvious affection for his devoted maid Martha (Rebecca Johnson), and dislikes the odious SS man Eric Schmidt (Edward Franklin) who’s there to make sure he toes the line and meets his grotesque quotas. Franz could be quite a likeable guy, in fact, but for the cold, clinical way he reels off the official justifications for his actions. Unlike the fanatical Schmidt, who simply hates the clinic’s patients and everything they represent, it’s obvious from the doctor’s hangdog expression, late night drinking and constant efforts to hide the truth from Martha that he knows full well what he’s doing is wrong. The arrival of David Yelland’s Bishop von Galen (a real historical figure, whose public opposition to the programme was key to its eventual abolition) could hardly be more timely, and his dignified rage in the face of Franz’s cowardice speaks for all of us.

The play is a very personal project for Stephen Unwin, who also directs, and there’s no doubting the passion or anger behind every word – but he resists the urge to preach his views, instead presenting a sensitive and balanced debate from which ultimately it’s the compassionate voices that cry out the loudest. While the men each get their turn to argue the intellectual and moral points of the debate, the two women – both mothers – represent the emotional heart of the play, and it’s their scenes that really drive home the horror of what’s happening. Lucy Speed’s Frau Pabst breaks our hearts as she describes her son with none of the eloquence of the men but a great deal more feeling; she knows Stefan will never have a job or pay tax – but he’s her son and she can’t bring herself to share the view that his is a life not worth living. And Martha’s softly spoken realisation that the patients she used to feel so sorry for are no different to her own three “normal” children has just as much impact as the bishop’s outrage.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

A few slightly artificial sound effects aside, All Our Children is an incredibly effective and thought-provoking piece of theatre, a warning from history that reminds us of our continuing duty to look out for those who need our help, particularly at a time of government cuts and growing intolerance. We may not be in Nazi Germany, and it may not be 1941 – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lessons to be learnt, or battles to be fought.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Stephen Unwin and Colin Tierney, All Our Children

“People keep saying to me is it weird? But in a funny kind of way it isn’t – it’s rather wonderful,” says Stephen Unwin, writer and director of All Our Children, which opens at Jermyn Street Theatre this week. “It’s the first time that I’ve both written and directed a play, so that’s a whole new interesting experience for me.”

Set in Nazi Germany, All Our Children examines the barbaric programme that saw thousands of disabled children murdered by the state, and its effect on five individuals, each of whom is involved in a different way. It’s a very personal project for Stephen, whose 20-year-old son is profoundly disabled, and who was recently appointed chair of children’s charity KIDS.

“There are three aspects to it,” he explains. “My mum is German Jewish; she left Germany as a child in 1936. And then I was brought up in Catholicism, and now I’m the parent of a disabled child, so it’s a kind of perfect storm; it all came together. The idea came from when I was reading a brilliant social history of the Third Reich, and it suddenly started talking about the Nazi programme of murdering disabled people, but then the opposition of this highly conservative Catholic priest called Von Galen – played in All Our Children by David Yelland – who extraordinarily wrote these letters and delivered three very famous sermons. As a result of his power, passion and commitment, the programme was discontinued, and it’s pretty much the only record of someone standing up to Hitler from within Germany and actually changing policy.”

The story takes place in a hospital for severely disabled children, run by chief paediatrician, Dr Victor Franz. Colin Tierney, who plays the doctor, explains, “The Nazis have taken power and they’ve created this situation where children are being sent off to their deaths because they don’t conform to the new German ideal of what life should be. And the play is about my character’s struggle on one day to deal with what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and how he’s going to get out of it.

“Victor Franz was a children’s doctor, somebody who spent his life looking after people, who created this institution where disabled children could be looked after, and all of a sudden in this different new Germany, he feels as if he’s been taken over by this new force. This is what I’m trying to work out along the way – his struggle about what he’s doing and how he makes the decision not to do it. So he’s essentially a good man who’s been forced to do these terrible things, and that’s the complex dilemma I’m wrestling with.”

In getting to know his character and the crisis he’s facing, Colin’s worked closely with Stephen. “It’s quite a short rehearsal time, so I’ve been reading the play a lot and discussing it with Stephen, who of course is both writer and director, and is really inside the world of the play. He’s given me so much information, so much detail around the backstory of the world – and because Stephen has a disabled child of his own, I’ve been looking to him for lots of clues. I’ve done a bit of reading around the subject but the bulk of my work has been in the room with the script, with the actors, breaking down the moments, finding the detail and finding how deeply they resonate within me on a human level.

I’m just enjoying it a lot – even though it’s a serious subject matter, there’s a great sense of wanting to do justice to the work, so there’s a good attitude. People are working hard and committing in a really positive, honest way.”

Despite the heavy topic, both Stephen and Colin are keen to reassure audiences that the play is not as brutal as it sounds. “It’s not a heavy dirge of an evening,” says Colin. “It’s not light either, but it’s philosophical and incredibly well written.”

“You don’t see any children, you don’t see any violence, but you know it’s there,” adds Stephen. “It’s a drama of human beings in a ghastly world trying to work out how to be human beings again. It’s not brutal as a play, and I think maybe some people are worried that it’ll be really horrible, about kids with Down’s Syndrome being shot – but you don’t see any of that, that’s not what I’m interested in presenting. I’m much more interested in presenting why might somebody think that kids with Down’s Syndrome are a bad thing.

“One of the Nazis’ main reasons for their persecution of these people was that they said they’re so expensive, that keeping somebody with cerebral palsy cost a fortune and that money could be spent on better things. And of course although I don’t say that the lives of the disabled is the same as in Nazi Germany – that would be a grotesque thing to say – there are issues today about how do you value a human being in terms of their monetary worth. What do you do about people who will never pay tax, will never have a job, who are non-productive? And it’s a very big radical question, it challenges our priorities. And that’s what I’m really interested in.

“One of my characters, played by Lucy Speed, is the mother of a disabled child. As chair of KIDS, I’ve come into contact with lots of parents of profoundly disabled kids, and there’s a mixture of love for their children and intense love for their vulnerability, combined with absolute towering rage for a society that doesn’t value them properly. It’s really palpable – they’re very radical people.

“We also have Edward Franklin as Eric, a young, committed Nazi – but you discover that his antipathy to disability actually comes from his father having been disabled in World War 1, and he hates it because he’s so angry about that. So one of the things I’m interested in is the way that discrimination towards disabled people is actually towards people’s anxieties about their own weaknesses – and also fear. Our final character is the doctor’s maid Martha, played by Rebecca Johnson, who has an important line about this towards the end: that she used to be afraid of them, used to think they could infect her, but she’s not afraid of them any more. And that’s a great big important development that society needs to take on – how not to be afraid of people with profound disability.”

Colin agrees that even though we’ve moved on from the horrific events depicted in All Our Children, the play still carries important messages for a 21st century audience. “Hopefully it will make people think about our responsibility to others, and our responsibility as a society – how important love is and looking after people, especially those who have trouble looking after themselves. I think that’s the measure of a society, whether people who can help others should, instead of everybody thinking for themselves and doing their own thing and saying ‘screw you’. That’s where the heart of the play is. It’s not like we live in Nazi Germany now at all of course, but I think there’s a strong human resonance that people can tap into when they see this play.”

Book now for All Our Children, at Jermyn Street Theatre from 26th April to 3rd June.