Review: Incident at Vichy ★★★★ – Rarely-performed Arthur Miller is 90 minutes of mounting tension in wartime France

Set in the detention room of a Vichy police station in 1942, Miller’s drama explores the ways paranoia among those detained by the Nazis could descend so easily into guilt and fear, making it all too easy for the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Ten men wait to be called. At first, the strained and nervous discussion is about why they might be there (a random pick up, routine check on their papers), but it soon emerges that some (or most) are Jews who have fled German-occupied northern France for the southern, ‘unoccupied’ Free Zone.

The play examines the various characters (some not even given a name: Gipsy, Waiter, Boy, Old Jew) and how they react to the increasingly frightening circumstances in which they find themselves. Some hope against hope that it will all turn out alright, even after communist railway worker Bayard (powerful Brendan O’Rourke) warns of cattle trucks full of people going to Poland to rumoured death camps. Others urge direct action, by the able-bodied at least. Are there ‘bad’ Germans and ‘passive’ Jews? In this classic morality play laying out the choices of good and evil between man and man and particularly within man himself, there are serial confrontations that reveal just how many points there can be on the so-called moral compass.

Previous, rare, productions of this Arthur Miller play suffered from trying to crank in dramatic action to beef up the morality statement, risking pre-empting the play’s climax, which does offer the promise of redemptive action (the ‘incident’). Here, director Phil Willmott makes the wise decision to let the words speak for themselves by focusing on designer Georgia de Grey’s white banquette within a white box that works brilliantly (literally) in the Finborough’s limited space. His superb line up of detainees are arranged on or around it in shifting poses as eloquent as Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Above them looms their eerie shadows, sharply-defined by Robbie Butler’s lighting.

From Lawrence Boothman’s painter, eyes eloquent with terror, to PK Taylor’s wonderfully infuriating actor, apparently in denial about his predicament; from Edward Killingback’s conscience-ridden Austrian nobleman (authentically tall and blonde) to Gethin Alderman’s French (Jewish) army doctor presenting Miller’s moral dilemma; this is a faultless and generous ensemble, perfectly cast to flesh out Miller’s selection of ‘types’ and to invest his rhetoric with humanity and pathos. And among the German captors, Timothy Harker, chillingly embodying the Nazi professor who revels in flushing out Jews, and Henry Wyrley-Birch’s conflicted Major, his war wound rendering him terrifyingly unpredictable, contribute to 90 minutes of almost unbearable tension.

The questions Miller poses are relevant today and this is an exceptional opportunity to see a rarely performed play in a production that Miller would surely have adored.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Incident at Vichy runs until Saturday 22 April. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 3pm (Sun only; and Sat from 8 Apr). £16-£18, £14-£16 concs. Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 084 4847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Click here to read more theatre reviews.