The German Girls
Lion & Unicorn Theatre
Reviewed – 16th August 2018
“it is the supporting roles that hold the most interest, perhaps due to their relative freedom from the constrains of the main plot sequence“
In British classrooms and history books, the Nazi occupation of France, Poland, and the Netherlands are all seen as integral to any analysis of World War II. However, upon reading about The German Girls ahead of Thursday night’s performance, I realised how little I knew about the occupation of Denmark, despite it perhaps being (save Austria) Germany’s closest cultural cousins. In the programme for the show, director Michelle Payne admits that she was almost completely in the dark about the period herself. Unsurprisingly, however, this was not the case for Danish actor and playwright Christina Tranholm whose new play explores the shattering of young lives in this darkest of times.
The plot hinges around the lives of four women working at a laundrette during the occupation. In particular the piece focuses on Ingrid (Tranholm), a kind if naïve young woman whose humdrum life at first seems barely affected by the upheaval around her. Indeed, as we discover, in the first few years of occupation, the German Wehrmacht was met with almost no resistance by their northern neighbours, a stark contrast to other fronts earning Denmark the nickname of “the playground”. However, as the war wears on, Danish resentment begins to set in, with resistance movements often spilling over into outright violence. At the same time, Ingrid finds herself falling in love with a young German soldier, Matthias (Liam Harkins), just when such an act is at its most dangerous.
The backdrop to the piece is naturally intense, and Tranholm is able to carefully weave the friction of first love with the wider trauma of the war. At its best, her writing captures how easily simple humanity can be crushed under the bootheels of conflict. And yet, the piece often suffers from seemingly inconsistent exposition.
On the one hand, as we discover in the programme, many of the scenes were workshopped by the actors during writing and the characters developed organically. In the scenes where this is apparent, the play comes alive. The interplay between the women working at the laundrette is natural and playful, and the later transition to darkness and discord therefore hits even harder.
By contrast, many of the links between scenes are in the form of choreographed quasi-dance pieces set to dark, echoey electronic music all of which jars horribly with the tone set by the drama. The thinking behind this juxtaposition is unclear and, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t work. The plot regularly feels in too much of a rush, which is a shame given the careful pace and subtlety of its best moments. Large sections of the story are explained -or rather explained away- in by-numbers monologues over similarly doomy music.
Each of the performances are assured, although it is the supporting roles that hold the most interest, perhaps due to their relative freedom from the constrains of the main plot sequence. Sara Hooppell, Rachel Laboucarie and Bryony McCarthy make good use of the close-quarters staging and dialogue that has been developed in workshop and George Whitehead provides reliable comic relief.
The German Girls is both historically enlightening and, when it works, a heart-breaking account of the banality of evil that breeds on both sides of a conflict. Tranholm’s piece aims to spark conversation, and indeed it does, but upon leaving the theatre I couldn’t help but feel as though I wanted more.
Reviewed by Harry True
Photography by Jacob Hughes Rodgers
The German Girls
Lion & Unicorn Theatre until 18th August
as part of The Camden Fringe Festival 2018