“The fine cast … do their best to instil compassion and nuance but are obstructed by too many facts and a stilted script”
On 19th April 1945 Norbert Masur, a Swedish activist and highly regarded representative of the World Jewish Congress, boarded a plane, emblazoned with a swastika, from Stockholm to Berlin. From there he was taken under cover of darkness to the home of Felix Kersten, Heinrich Himmler’s personal physiotherapist. Understandably Masur comes with fear and loathing; especially as it has been arranged for him to meet with the Reichsführer to persuade him to release prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps. It is the eve of Hitler’s final birthday; Germany’s surrender is imminent, and the Third Reich is collapsing. Days are numbered. The covert meeting is taking place without the Fürher’s knowledge. Himmler’s betrayal of Hitler is casting off its cloak of caution it seems, although we cannot trust his reasons for agreeing to the meeting.
The premise is riveting and Jason Taylor’s lighting with Michael Pavelka’s design evoke the right degree of trepidation and tension. Yet while the stakes are high, Ben Brown’s text and Alan Strachan’s staging bring them down to almost floor level in this rather lifeless production. The language has the dull flavour of domesticity that makes light of the shadows and the foreshadows that hang over the topics addressed. Ben Caplan’s Norbert Masur bookends the piece with context setting exposition which is mirrored by the overly urbane and polite dialogue that misrepresents the awful details. The fine cast, including Richard Clothier as the self-assured Himmler and Michael Lumsden as an amiable and slightly obsequious Kersten, do their best to instil compassion and nuance but are obstructed by too many facts and a stilted script.
It should be shocking. The denial of the Holocaust – a vicious product of Nazism and anti-Semitism – is a shocking historical fact. But we need more than Himmler stating, in a rather lazy RP, “I personally have never had a problem with your people”, or “I’ve never acted maliciously”. There is talk of “burying the hatchet” that bounces off the exposition so incongruously that it feels almost like a comedy sketch. Yet the introduction of humour arrives like a nervous gate crasher. If Brown is attempting irony, it doesn’t work.
Himmler left the meeting promising to release a thousand Jews form the camps. Masur is not satisfied but, as he says, ‘it’s a start’. We leave the auditorium with similar misgivings. Olivia Bernstone, as one of the survivors of the camp, suddenly appears and delivers a footnote describing the release from her perspective. Dramatically it is out of place, but it does add a touch of poignancy albeit too little too late.
“You’ll leave the show feeling as though you’ve been to a rather wonderful party full of funny and charming people”
Past, present and future come together in a magnificent show by Maria Friedman and Friends at the Menier Chocolate Factory. It’s true that the music and songs of Legacy are a reminder of what we’ve recently lost, sadly. But in Legacy, Maria Friedman has assembled a company of singers and musicians to celebrate that past — and to give us a tantalizing peek into the future. As the show proceeds, we meet a dazzling line up of both experienced performers, and young singers making their stage debut. Above all, Legacy is a sing your heart out tribute to the songs of Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand and Stephen Sondheim. The enthusiastic audience lapped it all up and begged for more.
Legacy is not just a great night out for fans of good music. In between the singing, and one great number by the band alone, Maria Friedman treats the audience to anecdotes about her life in musical theatre, including her memories of the men whose songs she sings, and whom she knew well. She connects with her audience easily — she’s full of warmth and self-deprecating humour. And she’s generous — not only in her introductions of the other performers on stage, but also the way in which she brings the audience into the show. Don’t be surprised if, on the night you visit, that’s literally what she does. On the night I was there, Friedman enthusiastically welcomed on stage Marvin Hamlisch’s widow Terre Blair. You’ll leave the show feeling as though you’ve been to a rather wonderful party full of funny and charming people.
The programme doesn’t give a completely accurate picture of what audiences will see on any one particular evening. Instead, Legacy puts together a number of well known numbers and reserves the right to add, or omit, to those on the list. The same holds true for the performers. What doesn’t change is the presence of Friedman herself, accompanied by the talents of long time friends Ian McLarnon and Matthew White. They are ably supported by stand out newcomers Desmonda Cathabel and Alfie Friedman. Friedman has not only inherited his mother’s talent — he brings something extra that is all his own. The band is superb, led by Theo Jamieson on piano, with Paul Moylan on double bass, and Joe Evans on drums. Legacy is a lively evening that modulates between boisterous ensemble numbers such as Hamlisch’s “I Hope I Get It”; an unusually upbeat “Windmills of Your Mind” (Legrand), to quieter, more intimate numbers such as “Old Friends” (Sondheim). And on this particular evening, as a tribute to International Women’s Day, Maria Friedman added a beautiful rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
If you’ve never been to the Menier Chocolate Factory, don’t hesitate to make Maria Friedman and Friends’ Legacy a reason for a first visit to this warm and welcoming venue. Bring some friends of your own. They’ll thank you.