Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 11 November 2017
SHADOWS OF WAR AND LOSS… Not a good time for AA Milne. That Goodbye Christopher Robin film about his WW1 trauma comes out – then Philip Pullman sounds off scornfully about how he despises the coziness of the books – now old Otto in Judith Burnley’s play starts inveighing against the “sentimental, sanctimonious, false” stories. It’s an Eeyore chorus.
But help is at hand, as the cantankerous Jewish survivor’s German carer Lotte stands up for Pooh and Tigger, because when she was five in 1939, a sprig of the old (antifascist) nobility, her English nanny read them to her. She liked how different it was, since with Poohsticks you can cheer for the understick.
“In Germany children were indoctrinated to believe that to be German was superior. You had to win. In England, they hung over that bridge and watched the natural forces, wind, water, shape, size and above all luck determine which stick won…sometimes you wanted the big one to win, sometimes the smaller.”
The play is a two-hander, set in a pleasant Belsize Park flat in 1991 just as the Wall has come down. Clive Merrison is angry Otto, hating old age. He has made a good industrial career in England though his deepest love is his music. Lotte, who escaped East Germany when her family estate was cut by the border, has been living in Israel with her beloved Yakov (“the first Jew I eve met socially”) and in widowhood was hired by Otto’s Israeli daughter to be his carer, against his will. And to make him sign he papers for the property reparations Germany was still making to Jews whose property was seized.
They both have scars of war. His are deep and obvious – Buchenwald and a final traumatic reveal about his little sister’s horrid death. Here are subtler, both personal about her father’s execution, and more generally in her great cry of “There isn’t a monopoly on suffering. What did I lose? Everything. Lands, heritage, money. But most of all I lost the sense of what it was to be a German, a real civilized traditional German with real and honourable and lasting German values”. It is a fair point, rarely made.
Not that she breaks out often in emotion. Lotte is played with beautiful , intensely felt restraint and gentleness by Issy van Randwyck: beneath her necessary matronly fussing there are layers of sadness, expressed in stillness, half-smiles, and benign attention to the difficult, sometimes disinhibited old man. It is worth seeing for that performance alone; though Merrison is as good as ever, he has been handed an awkward task. The writing is sometimes clunky (there are near the start two unconscionably long and clumsy one-sided phone calls to negotiate, neither of them wholly necessary). Sometimes it is just psychologically odd: once, the fourth wall comes down for a soliloquy about sexual desire, and the most wrenching bit of his wartime backstory – which explains the title – is unaccountably told not to Lotte but to us, with a strength of delivery which is a bit confusing since he is by then near his end.
There is also a continuity problem, in that we know he was interned as an enemy alien in 1939 and never saw his family again, yet somehow he has vivid knowledge of their final night, later. Maybe I missed a line, but it is not the sort of thing one should – at such a point and on such a theme – be worrying about. Making you do it is a structural flaw.
Indeed often I had a restless sense that there is a seriously good play trying to be born here and almost making it, and I hope another version will rise. But von Randwyck’s performance, and the theme, were satisfying. The Jermyn, intimate and intense, has always been a good place for reigniting history.
Box office 0207 287 2875 http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk