Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 11 September 2021
Occupied France, 1944. Two teenagers newly in love meet in an empty house. Elodie is French, Otto a German soldier. They are both endearing and annoying, as befits their age: she has pinched an unhatched egg from a neighbour’s bombed chicken-coop but has blood on her hands because (symbolism alert!) a fox had got in. They lay it in a bed of feathers together. Something moves outside, a plane flies over, he crouches in terror, gun out. She stays jokey. He speaks of the dullness of Dusseldorf and how he is looking forward to his upcoming trip to England: word is that the invasion is imminent.
Twenty minutes pass. A bomb falls on the local church, and sweary, anticlerical Elodie is pleased because there’s some haunting rumour about an abusive priest there. She worries about keeping the room nice as “Mrs Levy”, her former boyfriend’s Mum, always does.
Otto tells her Mrs Levy won’t be coming back. “I know what she is. We’ve taken care of her.” He expatiates on how important it is, this great work for a beautiful future – “One people and they’re all born good.” He is in love with Mr Hitler, as much almost as with this girl. He tells her about his previous day’s work on a firing squad, shooting her old teacher and, it appears, quite likely having shot Mrs Levy’s son. He is not pleased when she tells him the radio has revealed that the Americans are in Normandy, Paris has fallen, and there’s no way he’s going to England. “You’ve lost.” A Lancaster roars overhead (it’s a very classy soundscape, by Katy Hustwick, and a thoughtful design by Niall McKeever).
As scenes continue we flip forward to the liberation, his death, and the humiliating head-shaving awaiting her as a “Nazi’s whore”, then backward to their first meeting, and forward to the hatching of the chick, a stolen moment of innocence.
Rita Kalnejais’ play holds attention for its 70 minutes all right, and Katie Eldred and a heroically bleached-blond Freddie Wise are compelling, very much any pair of modern teenagers (though perhaps without the social conscience). Otto’s feeling that he gets ‘respect’ through his uniform is convincing, though Elodie’s ability to screen out the fact that her neighbours and family have been persecuted and shot by the same uniforms as her lovers is a bit startling. Maybe some teenagers did.
When Chirolles Khalil’s production works it is by laying out before us the hopelessness of innocence in a savage wartime world, and underlining the banality of evil. Indeed the opening scene stays banal for so long one almost loses patience, until revelations of Otto’s attitude and his actions under orders jerk you back.
So I was halfway there with it, assisted by the fact that this little theatre has shown some of the best (often contemporaneous) plays about the second world war and the years leading up to it. But much of the potential strength of this small sad, typical story is sapped by the author’s modern pretentiousness, framing it in unconnected good-resolution voiceovers in the general tone of teenage “If I could do it again” coffeemug mottoes: about wearing your hair down and believing in love. Maybe if I was younger and less jaded I would be moved by this rather than irritated…
I wanted to like it more than I did. If I had teenage kids I would take them, because they would learn much about war, and France, and the limitations of romance. And it’s an interesting, accomplished attempt, with two fine performances.
Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk To. 11 September