Jermyn Street Theatre

Review: Anything That Flies ★★★ - Soaring performances bring home a poignant message

I won’t reveal why novelist Judith Burnley gives her moving debut play this intriguing title. To find out, you’ll have to get to know Otto and Lottie, he a Holocaust survivor and she an aristocratic German with her own story of devastating wartime trauma. Otto’s viola-playing days may be over, as he is also a stroke survivor, but he has the consolation of listening to Brahms on state-of-the-art speakers he designed himself!

It’s 1991, so 46 years since the war and two years after the Berlin Wall fell. The latter has repercussions for both; the former changed their lives forever. Escaping Germany in time meant Otto suffered further displacement, interned on the Isle of Man, only to discover the fate of his family once the war was over. Lottie’s father was hanged (‘with piano wire’) for his part in a plot to kill Hitler, and after the war she herself fled life under Communism as Germany was divided.

All this comes out as the unlikely pair size each other up once the life force that is Lottie bursts into Otto’s Belsize Park flat, apparently sent to care for him by his daughter. Lottie explains they met in Israel, where Otto’s daughter now lives and where Lottie’s Israeli partner has just died. Daughter Erika wins him over by describing the traditional Mittel Europa dishes that are Lottie’s cooking credentials – of course it’s Otto we hear reciting, increasingly orgasmically, “Rostbraten? Schnitzel? Sauerbraten?” It’s a hilarious one-sided phone conversation, one of the more successful of a series of such phone chats that stud the action.

Lottie soon discovers Otto has other ways of attempting to reach orgasm – he is in short a transgressive randy old goat, so that by the time he has called Lottie a Nazi and a German shiksa (Yiddish for a non-Jewish whore), your sympathies are with her. And as much as he loves the dishes of his childhood, he despises that icon of Englishness, Christopher Robin. It’s his contemptuous dismissal of her recitations that leads Lottie to reveal that the great love of her life was the English nanny who introduced her to AA Milne.

Nonetheless the pair bond over their love of the English language. For him it means a yearning to fit in, to be part of the country where he’s made a new life, but nonetheless feels like an outsider: “Beneath the politeness … a dirty Jew.” For her it’s her concept that English children played poo sticks as “German children were being conscripted into Hitler’s Youth League."

This is one of the best scenes in a timely play that poignantly explores what it is to be an outsider – reminding contemporary audiences what the refugees of the last century underwent as the asylum seekers of the 21st century strive to make new lives. Clive Merrison and Issy van Randwyck are pitch perfect in this two-handed performance.

By Judi Herman

Anything That Flies runs until Saturday 11 November. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 3.30pm (Sat only). From £15. Jermyn Street Theatre, SW1Y 6ST.

Review: All Our Children ★★★★ - Director turned writer Stephen Unwin vividly brings a lesser-known Nazi atrocity to our attention

The horrors of the mass killing of disabled children perpetrated by the Nazis are less well-known than the Holocaust, though they were arguably a rehearsal for the final solution. All Our Children, a moving drama from director turned writer Stephen Unwin, tells their story by focusing on one so-called clinic and the awakening conscience of Victor, the ageing doctor who runs it. Unwin dedicates his drama to his son Joey, who has profound learning difficulties, so this first play from the acclaimed theatre director is an intensely personal story.

Colin Tierney captures every nuance of Victor's struggle in a finely-calibrated performance, neatly contrasted with the cool certainty of his co-administrator Eric, a ruthless young Nazi ideologue, played with terrifying authenticity by Edward Franklin. Eric has no problem with the argument that these 'imbeciles' are a waste of money and precious resources.

The only woman in Victor's life is his gentle solicitous housekeeper Martha (luminous Rebecca Johnson). Indeed there is a suggestion that the bachelor might be gay, which we know could mean he'll share the fate of his charges. Meanwhile Martha has a hinterland that brings the outside world into the clinic, a husband at the front, a bright five-year-old son and a nubile 17-year-old daughter attracting unwelcome attention from Eric.

The doctor receives two visitors, catalysts for a change of heart, Frau Pabst, devoted mother of one of his 'patients' and Bishop Von Galen, a real-life champion of the helpless victims of Hitler's Euthanasia Decree.

Lucy Speed plays Frau Pabst, with heartbreaking and increasingly strident desperation, convinced Victor is hiding the fate of her son, but his evasive answers are more an indication of his inability to explain why he cannot help her and his fears for his own predicament than of callousness.

So it is left to Bishop Galen to make a difference, to add his righteous anger to her furious distress, and so fully awaken Victor's conscience. David Yelland plays Galen with blazing authority – the words righteous indignation are overused, but this is surely what they mean.

Mindful of the fate of so many committed Christians under Hitler and in the light of Eric's contemptuous denouncement of the Bishop, you fear for him. Unwin does not reveal his fate – suffice to say he was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV.

One of the most moving moments, a beautiful heartfelt declaration of real love and affection for her charges from Martha which serves to finally determine Victor's way forward, has all the authenticity of the playwright's experience of the love and joy of living with these children. That he can also write witty, albeit dark lines, evoking audience laughter, only makes the situation more real and immediate. A fine writing debut for this seasoned director.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Camilla Greenwell

All Our Children runs until Saturday 3 June. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 3.30pm (Sat only; plus 18 & 25 May). £22-£30. Jermyn Street Theatre, SW1Y 6ST. 020 7287 2875.

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