Above the Stag, London – until 2 November 2019
The Good Scout achieves the impossible – finding an original, untold story from World War Two. In the 1930s, boys from the Nazi Hitlerjugend visit British Rover Scouts for a cycling holiday as a cultural exchange. Rapidly established friendships are rapidly complicated when one of the scouts learns that the Hitler Youth have orders to photograph airfields and landmarks for the forthcoming war.
The atmosphere that the production evokes is almost prelapsarian – boys in shorts, homely mothers, cycling through the English countryside. It’s the idyll of The Shire while Mordor fills with panzer divisions.
Glenn Chandler‘s writing is as sharp as schnapps; even the characters’ names cleverly reflect their personalities. The play is intelligent, enlightening and is to be praised for dealing honestly with history and largely shunning the tired trope trap of so many historical dramas – the condescending back-projection of twenty-first-century values onto a simplified view of the past.
When it comes to the play’s themes – and there are many – Chandler is a master mason, expertly layering them into story and character so smoothly that you can’t discern the author’s voice. At its core is the relationship between the individual and authority, in all its fractured contradictions, as seen from a queer standpoint, and it is this tension that makes the play more complex than just Scouts versus Nazis.
The protagonist, Will (a super performance by Daniel Cornish), believes in playing by the rules – even if that means reporting a boy for suspected homosexuality. Will’s chum, Jacob (a pitch-perfect Charlie Mackay) is a typical, English, country lad, yet is enamoured of Nazi uniforms and rallies. When we first see Friedrich (Simon Stache), we see a personification of the Hitler Youth, but the black uniform and swastika hide a sensitive boy forced into violence. Even Gerhard (Clemente Lohr), the Nazi fanatic, is a homosexual who could be castrated back in Germany.
The acting is excellent. Amanda Bailey could hardly have fitted the role of the slightly saucy, mumsy mother better. Lewis Allcock, as the enigmatic John Dory, would have made Großadmiral Dönitz proud with the way he slips beneath the audience’s sonar.
But it’s the Germans who steal the show. The start of the play actually lacks a little impetus until the entrance of the two, smiling Hitlerjugend in shorts, as fresh-faced as if they had just stepped out of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph des Willens”.
“If there’s one thing you learn from life, it’s that no one learns.”
Stache’s touching, reluctant Friedrich, encapsulates the dilemma of Nazism for many Germans of the time – conform or see your family arrested. Yet it was Lohr’s Gerhard who was the highlight for me, a metronome of a monster, tick-tocking between the dutiful, Aryan son, and the Nazi would who betray his father, between the polite, solicitous young man and the sneering, bullying sociopath who misinterprets Darwin to justify the extermination of the weak.
The staging of the production works well. Not only does the simple, studio setting of the Above The Stag Theatre enhance the inspired, absurdist depiction of figures like Édouard Daladier, Chamberlain and Hitler, but, unintentionally, the atmosphere of a 1930s Europe on the brink of apocalypse is made more ominous by the occasional thundering of the trains overhead, which sound startlingly like distant bombing.
The Good Scout is, in some ways, an alembic for issues that are recurring today. As Bailey’s Rose says in the wisest line of the night, “If there’s one thing you learn from life, it’s that no one learns.”
The Good Scout runs from 9 October to 2 November 2019, 72 Albert Embankment, Lambeth, London SE1 7TP, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 5.30pm. Tickets are priced £20. Click here to purchase!