Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 11 November 2017
When I read that Anything that Flies was her debut play by writer, Judith Burnley, I naturally assumed it was a young playwright being given a big chance by Jermyn Street’s new artistic director, Tom Littler.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Judith Burnley, it turns out, is someone I’ve known for years but had no idea was an already acclaimed novelist and editor, let alone a playwright. Anything that Flies very particularly shows you should never jump to conclusions. People are not always what they seem.
That was a lesson taught to me many years ago but if you didn’t know it, Anything that Flies would bring it home to you in a way you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. And may indeed go on haunting you, as indeed, the past haunts its two characters, Otto and Lottie.
Germans both, ostensibly they couldn’t be more different. In Alice Hamilton’s production, in the Jermyn Street theatre’s tiny, boutique surround, the designer – designers in this case, Emily Adamson and Neil Irish – have carefully and with absolute precision transformed the small square space into a piece of old Germany.
Records, pictures, furniture – everything exudes another time, pre WWII before fascism and Hitler swept away not only six million Jews but with it, cultural values and a way of being.
Otto and Lottie are both exiles from their land – he a Jewish musician and devoted Anglophile, settled in this country for many years, who came to study music and stayed. Lottie a new arrival, sent by his Israeli-based daughter to be his carer after a stroke, is from an aristocratic German family. To Otto, all Germans who are not Jews are automatically Nazis, responsible for the Holocaust.
But over the course of the next 90 minutes we learn that is very far from the case. A two-handed drama of psychological nuance and wisdoms, Burnley draws out the differences and the similarities they share under the skin – with the dominating Otto, his capriciousness, his vulnerability and his pain.
A startling, demanding role, it’s magnificently fleshed out by Clive Merrison, querulous one moment, lecherous the next as he attempts to keep some sort of control on his life with fading success; remembering the fate of his family in Buchenwald and his young sister, Elise, opposing his daughter’s attempts to seek reparation and all the time consoled only by a deep and abiding love of music – his `sticking plaster’ he calls it.
As Lottie, Issy van Randwyck is simply astonishing. Endlessly patient, almost subservient, bringing in an endless array stream trays for Otto, cleaning up after his incontinence, it’s a performance of modest but total immersion – a soul under strict rules of decorum that although torn from its moorings and having lost everything in the turmoil of post-war Germany (and a father hanged for being part of the failed Hitler assassination plot) is yet adhering to the codes of her upbringing.
There are so many marvellous, carefully orchestrated moments in Hamilton’s production: Merrison bringing the full weight of disgust to bear on Otto’s exclamation, `Swiss Cottage’ as `that phoney haven for elderly exiles…most of them don’t even speak English and they’ve been here for years and years…they go on believing that life in the old country was Real Life…when we know in every way it’s possible to know, that the very reverse is true.’
Or a line that hums down the wires, that speaks to any exile or indeed any of us hearing the call of years passing – `how can you draw a line under your childhood without severing an artery.’
Together, Burnley, Alice Hamilton, Merrison and van Randwyck have crafted a superb and beautiful epitaph to a lost European culture, one that ruminates most movingly on identity, on Englishness and German-ness and the loss suffered even in the embrace of a new language and culture.
Tom Littler’s tenancy at the Jermyn Street theatre is turning into a quietly undeniable tour de force.