Review: Anything That Flies at Jermyn Street Theatre

When we hear the word “refugee”, there’s a certain picture that comes to mind – and it’s fair to say Otto Huberman, the elderly man in Judith Burnley’s new play Anything That Flies, is as far from that picture as you can get. 50 years after the Holocaust killed his family, he’s living in a nice flat in Belsize Park, having made his name and a comfortable living from inventing – among other things – a popular brand of speaker. After he suffers a mild stroke, his concerned daughter engages her friend Lottie to come and take care of him, much to his disgust. Not only is he fiercely independent, he also objects to Lottie’s heritage as a member of an aristocratic German family – but it turns out she has a tragic history of her own, and the two may have more in common than Otto thinks.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Otto’s cantankerousness allows for plenty of humorous moments, and the developing understanding and affection between the two characters is certainly heartwarming. More than anything, though, the play is a quietly devastating portrayal of traumatic loss – of family, friends and country – and its lasting impact over five decades. What the play does particularly well is to challenge assumptions: the idea, for instance, that anyone who wasn’t Jewish in 1940s Germany couldn’t possibly have suffered, or that a refugee who makes it to a safe (or, to use Otto’s word, sane) haven, their problems are somehow immediately at an end.

The production, directed by Alice Hamilton, also succeeds on a personal level, with two beautiful performances from Clive Merrison and Issy van Randwyck. Otto is an old man, increasingly frail and confused after his stroke, and Clive Merrison captures his volatility to perfection. He’s simultaneously proud and intellectual, rude and wildly inappropriate, frightened and haunted by loss – and any one of these personality traits can come out at any given moment.

As Lottie, Issy van Randwyck bears it all stoically, refusing to rise to her patient’s bait, though clearly troubled by both his repeated labelling of her as a Nazi and his growing physical and mental vulnerability. She’s a classy, intelligent woman, and like her we find ourselves wondering how she ended up on her hands and knees cleaning up an old man’s latest bathroom emergency; it’s only later that we come to understand she’s repaying a debt for an imagined crime committed in her childhood.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Emily Adamson and Neil Irish’s living room set fits perfectly in the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre, with realistic light and sound from Elliot Griggs and Max Pappenheim. In fact, the production is relentlessly spot on in its attention to detail; the above mentioned bathroom emergency, for instance, leaves little to the imagination, and even before Otto seemingly breaks the fourth wall to relive the night his family was taken (a horrifying story that finally explains the play’s title), we feel included and completely at home in his flat.

Anything That Flies is on the surface a touching story about two very different people finding some common ground. But beneath that surface is something far darker, an exploration of the nature of loss on multiple levels – and it’s here that the play really makes an impact. This well-crafted production of a powerful new play is definitely worth a visit.

Anything That Flies is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 11th November.

Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain at Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing we Brits love more than laughing at ourselves… except possibly laughing at Americans. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain from Fol Espoir and The Real MacGuffins has both of these things. It also has cricket, Brussels sprouts and a perfectly brewed pot of tea. It’s very funny if you’re British, possibly a little less so if you’re American, and I imagine fairly baffling to everyone else.

The premise is simple: a unit of American airmen, recently arrived in England during World War II, has had rather too much fun in the nearby village of Nether Middleton – resulting in a cat up a tree, the local policeman locked in his own cell, and a prize marrow stuck on the church spire. As compensation, they must apologise and help clean up, but also take a course in British culture, to foster friendship and cooperation with their new neighbours – all whilst preparing for a visit from “the President of London”, Winston Churchill himself.

You can probably imagine what comes next. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek and frequently quite bonkers celebration of the many ways in which Brits and Americans are different – and the many, many ways that each nation’s way of life baffles the other. Think Dad’s Army with Americans, and you get the general idea.

It’s all inspired by a genuine pamphlet issued to American GIs in 1942 introducing them to the quirks and customs of British life, but that’s where the historical accuracy comes to an end – or at least I assume it does, otherwise I’m really not sure how we ever won the war. A few of the jokes are funny precisely because of the historical nature of the show and the benefit of hindsight; an oblique reference to the current resident of the White House goes down particularly well, as does the British lieutenant’s disdain for decimalisation as he launches into a hilariously convoluted explanation of pounds, shillings and pence.

Established comedy trio The Real MacGuffins – aka Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, who wrote the show with director John Walton – turn up with a variety of costumes and accents as, among others, a bullying American colonel, some German spies-in-training, a cricket-loving English lord and a randy Scottish pensioner. They’re clearly having a blast, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, or to admire their improvisation skills when the occasional curveball is tossed their way from the audience (cricket fans, please pardon the baseball pun).

Speaking of the audience, it’s worth mentioning – without giving anything away – that this is a show requiring everyone’s participation. The front row is a particular danger zone, but even those hiding at the back will have an opportunity to join in the fun, even if there isn’t really sufficient space to get involved properly (I’ll just leave that there for your imagination to mull over). But it’s all very good-natured and there’s no pressure on anybody to perform, so if you’re not a fan of participatory theatre, don’t let it put you off.

Like all the best comedy, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is funny because it’s largely true, a joyous celebration of all those little oddities of which we Brits are secretly rather proud. Definitely one to check out in between drinking tea and talking about the weather…

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 29th July.

Review: The Last Ones at Jermyn Street Theatre

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

The wonders of human behaviour will never fail to inspire. Politics, domestics and history are all intertwined. In The Last Ones the Russian playwright Gorky, knowingly admired by Chekov, creates an honest tableau of life, power, conflict, love and devastation.

The play is set in the bloody aftermath of the 1905 revolution but focuses on the struggles of a corrupt tsarist police chief named Ivan Kolomiitsev and his family. After a failed assassination and unjust accusation, the family is left in utter confusion, not knowing who to trust nor what to believe. The father’s gambling, drinking and affairs waste away all their money, and the family is forced to take refuge at wealthy Uncle Yakov’s house.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The play asks us: do we really know each other? How can one come to terms with their father, husband, brother, lover being wrong? Looking into the life of a despised and hated man – we grow affectionate to his family and begin to unpeel the layers and grey areas present in the human body. Conveying these grey areas – evil is not absolute, it is not binary nor concrete.

It is not an easy play; character journeys are very weaved together and are slightly difficult to follow. Ivan, played by Daragh O’Malley and Sonia, played by Louise Gold, have five children: Alexander, Peter, Nadia, Vera, Lyubov. Some of the children follow the father’s footsteps into corruption, greed, alcoholism and gambling, whilst the younger ones are faced with many questions. The latter, Lyubov, is damned for being “crippled” by Ivan, who she discovers in the play is actually not her biological father. This is not news to the family as Ivan’s brother Yakov, played by Tim Woodward, and Sonia’s old love affair is not as secret as they would hope.

Ivan is attempting to bribe his way back into the police force and regain his power. However, power has a price. Peter and Vera begin to learn the truth about their father when a young man, a revolutionary, explains to him the facts. Then the mother of the innocent child incarcerated for Ivan’s assassination comes to the house to speak to Sonia, and things begin to unravel. Conflict increases throughout to finally culminate in a desolate open-ended finale, in which corruption and evil triumph over the rest.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Anthony Biggs’ production is intense and moving at times. The set, designed by Cecilia Trono, is simple, but appropriate to the atmosphere created. The performances fluctuate between moments of truthfulness and other slightly weaker moments, although the show kept my attention throughout and moved me with its passionate honesty. It is a play about people, the human body and mind. We too often forget the importance of focusing on the reasons and objectives behind our actions. The Last Ones brings them to the forefront, putting us face to face with difficult questions. What would you have done in their position?

The Last Ones is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 1st July.

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.

All Our Children is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 3rd June.

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.