Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 3 June 2017
Stephen Unwin is a name I am familiar with as a director, and in my experience he’s an incredibly talented director. His debut play, All Our Children is set in 1941 and throws a spotlight onto the true story of the cruel and senseless murders of disabled children in Nazi Germany. Their deaths were ‘justified’ financially and said to be a means of lessening their parents’ loads, to whom they must have been a burden and a blight. Set in a clinic where the children’s executions were being authorised by a paediatrician, the story examines morality, ignorance and on many levels, love.
Victor (Colin Tierney) is the doctor charged with the horrendous job of signing the death warrants of supposedly the most severely disabled, ‘no-hopers’ for want of a better phrase. His health is failing him, he’s diagnosed himself with lung cancer and he is unable to speak at length without coughing. His Administrator at the clinic is an obnoxious young man by the name of Eric (Edward Franklin), he takes delight in exclaiming “Heil Hitler” at every given moment and has not ingratiated himself with the Victor’s faithful, caring Maid, Martha (Rebecca Johnson).
Not least because he is having his fun with her seventeen year old daughter and sees no harm in that. Although it appears that Victor has some empathy and moral standing when he is casually ticking off the list of potential victims, he is forced to face the consequences of his actions. The arrival of Elizabetta (Lucy Speed) at the clinic, desperate to have a look at her boy (although she states he should be a young man by now) is the defining moment. With the imminent arrival of Bishop von Galen (David Yelland) on his way to find out if there is any truth in the rumours of these horrendous crimes – it’s enough to drive the Doctor to question his future. After all, he trained to be a Doctor in order to cure the sick.
There was an appropriately chilling atmosphere created by the authentic looking set (designed by Simon Higlett) which set the tone of the play and Jermyn Street’s studio space added extraordinary impetuous.
Colin Tierney is outstanding as Victor, his characterisation is steady and considered for the most part, yet his ability to layer the emotions that the doctor is experiencing is also notable. Edward Franklin makes for a despicable Eric and that is exactly what we are supposed to feel for this slippery, scheming character, his performance is on point throughout. The character has a fascinating back-story which doesn’t justify Eric’s behaviour, but offers some explanation. Lucy Speed is a revelation and extremely heart-wrenching as Elizabetta the grateful and then grieving mother. The character represents all of the mothers (and indeed, fathers) who will have been faced with such horrific news and Speed does it brilliantly, what a force to be reckoned with! David Yelland commands the stage as Bishop von Galen, the two-hander scenes with Tierney were among some of the finest in the piece. Meanwhile Rebecca Johnson possess the canny ability of underplaying Martha, blending her into the background as the all-seeing eye, then bringing her to the fore with magnificent force, appropriately. Her beautifully emotive performance in the final scene moved me to tears.
This piece serves as a stark reminder of the horrors of the holocaust and, certainly in my humble opinion, throws a question mark over humanity. Epilepsy is frequently raised as just one of the conditions that disabled children suffered with (and this remains a common accomplice to disability). What struck a chord with me was that the parents of these severely disabled children must surely have fretted about their offspring succumbing to a number of life-limiting illnesses, yet the eventual cause of their children’s deaths would have been the furthest thought from their mind, unthinkable. One of the main themes of the play is summarised beautifully by Martha when she admits that she is grateful to have her own healthy children but that she has come to love the children in the clinic.
Stephen Unwin is as gifted a Playwright as he is a Director. I cannot remember the last time a piece of theatre moved me to such an extent with its intensity and complexity.