Sometimes you watch a compelling and lively BBC costume drama, set in WW2 let’s say, and think: hmm, if only they had a bit more intelligence in the script, a bit more challenge. Well, this production provides it. It’s a vibrant, very watchable play; saying the audience is captivated isn’t too strong. Partly it’s the writing, which has believable, interesting characters that you want to find out more about; partly it is the very high standard of the acting.
Doreen, a suspicious and damaged but business-savvy farmer’s wife, takes onto her Isle of Man farm not only two conscientious objectors, but also two Jewish German refugees. (They’re still German, she sniffs.) That sets up the play’s central political and social dynamic, but it’s the interpersonal developments that equally grip your attention.
The opening scene, where Harry, the conscientious objector, is interrogated by a contemptuous offstage government official, ups the ante straight away. The theme of blank, unfeeling officialdom is carried through the play, but it’s played realistically and without a heavy hand. As Leni the German refugee remarks, “The British government will do what it wants” – which in this case, includes interning a 16-year-old German Jewish boy as an enemy alien.
There is a tension here between the conscientious objector and the Jewish Germans; for the latter, to be pacifist is to be killed. Yet it’s a Quaker pacifist lady (think a progressive and likeable Mrs Snell from the Archers!) that has brought these people together, working to help on the farm.
Those themes permeate the play, but not in a stifling way. There is plenty else going on –Paul’s sexual vanity means he is only too pleased to think the beautiful Leni fancies him, even though that’s really just malicious gossip spread by Doreen. Leo, the younger German refugee, shows puppy-like adoration which is simply and compassionately portrayed. These, and other well-observed relationships between the characters, keep your attention on the stage.
It’s a completely realist play; the 1940s kitchen set on which most of the action is played out gives it a natural feel. The group portrait it offers also suits the closed and intimate environment of the Lantern’s performance space. If there is a complaint, it is that one of the plotlines concerning the farmer’s wife is a little sparse and odd; this was originally a two and half hour play, cut here to fit the Fringe, and her back story would have informed this plot development better.
But this is just a quibble. Believable and naturalistic dialogue with faultless delivery, sparky interactions, sympathetic but imperfect characters, great pacing and narrative progression mean that the audience hang onto every minute of the play. That this was first night makes it all the more impressive.