Youth Without God
The Coronet Theatre
Reviewed – 24th October 2019
“Horváth’s story oozes dread and suspense, both of which were lacking this evening”
Christopher Hampton, the West-End’s go-to translator whose adaptation of Florian Zeller’s “The Son” is currently playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre, has turned his hand to Ödön von Horváth’s 1938 novella “Youth Without God” (‘Jugend ohne Gott’). First published the year of his untimely death, Horváth’s novella is a stunning meditation on complicity and justice under the early years of Nazi rule in Germany. Hampton has been faithful to a fault, in a way that leaves this production feeling a little lacking.
Originally a first-person narrative, we follow the nameless Teacher (Alex Waldmann) whose class of teenage schoolboys are introduced as hot-headed, propaganda-spurting youths. After trying to oust their teacher for his insistence that “Africans are humans too”, the boys are sent off with him for military training in the mountains. Free to roam the woods, one boy (Raymond Anum) begins a clandestine affair with a young orphaned girl (Anna Munden), and events quickly spiral out of control with one classmate ending up with a stone to the temple (Malcolm Cumming) and the other on trail for his life.
All this is told ostensibly from the teacher’s perspective, using narration and reported speech to detail the events. This would not be a problem, but Waldmann’s fairly under-energised performance means he doesn’t quite bring us on side, and he remains an impassive and emotionally stunted character throughout. Hampton has translated great swathes of text for the Teacher, but more needs to be worked out between writer, director and actor to differentiate between narrated and lived-in moments. Why is the Teacher speaking to us at all? Knowing the book, the translation feels a little unimaginative at times. As a published text, fine. On stage? It gets quite dry.
Director Stephanie Mohr has some intriguing ideas that feel blocked by a heavy and dominant text. Chalkboards frame the stage and become trees, doors and a canvas for the boys and their teacher to write on. Dolls’ heads and school chairs end up littering the stage, but much of the business comes across as style over substance. The eleven-strong cast seems a bit over the top, given that three actors play multiple roles while the others get away with one. David Beames stands out for offering a dose of energetic oddness amongst the doom and gloom.
Taken altogether, the potential of the text is sadly left drifting in this production. Horváth’s story oozes dread and suspense, both of which were lacking this evening. Some moments had potential to shock and disturb, but the overwhelming emotion at the end of the night is a shrug rather than a shudder.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by Tristram Kenton
Youth Without God
The Coronet Theatre until 19th October
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Songs For Nobodies
Wilton’s Music Hall
Reviewed – 26th March 2018
“such a talented actor giving an exceptional performance”
This highly recommended production gives two compelling reasons for a theatre visit. Firstly it provides the rare opportunity to see and hear the terrifically talented Australian Bernadette Robinson in this country and secondly to do so at one of the few surviving grand music halls in the world.
This was my first visit to Wilton’s Music Hall though it certainly won’t be my last. Tucked behind a row of terrace properties in Whitechapel, a short walk away from Tower Hill, this building has undergone a sympathetic restoration process over recent years. Entering the venue there is a sense of awe, a feeling of visiting the past which enhances the anticipation of watching the performance.
Once inside the musical hall there was an angled apron stage on which Robinson performed. This area included several items of furniture that she used to extend the visual aspects of the stories she portrayed. Behind her was a three piece band that was positioned on the raised stage, framed by a magnificent proscenium arch. The stage and her clothing were exclusively black.
Songs for Nobodies was written by Joanna Murray-Smith to specifically showcase Robinson’s exceptional vocal talents and her ability to recreate the sounds of legendary female singers. In this one woman show there are five separate monologues which involve singers from entirely different musical worlds. In each she plays both the megastar and the ‘nobody’ whose life is changed in some way by their interaction with one of those great singers.
We first get to meet Bea, a washroom attendant who meets Judy Garland on the night of her famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. Her performance of Come Rain or Come Shine sent a shiver down my spine. Next is Pearl, an usherette in Kansas City, who meets Country and Western star Patsy Cline in her dressing room on the night that thirty year old Patsy was killed in a plane crash. She sings two songs including Crazy and the portrayal of her emotionally expressive and bold contralto voice is perfect. The third monologue is both funny and sad. It tells the story of an English librarian whose father was helped by Edith Piaf to escape from a prisoner of war camp. Piaf’s voice is perfectly recreated and of the two songs performed Non, Je ne Regrette Rien is a showstopper.
Billie Holiday has an immediately recognisable voice. Inspired by jazz instrumentalists it was one that pioneered a new way of improvisation, phrasing and tempo. Again Robinson is able to master this in the story of budding journalist Too Junior Jones. Here the ‘nobody’ is a woman of privilege who meets the wonderful singer and acknowledges the obstacles she faced. In this segment there are three songs including Strange Fruit. The final monologue demonstrates perfectly the voice range that Robinson has. We are treated to a stunning version of Puccini’s Vissi D’Arte where years of her studying classical singing are obvious. It is a great story of an Irish nanny for Ari Onassis and his relationship with perhaps the greatest diva of all – Maria Callas.
The audience reaction to the show was an immediate and thoroughly deserved standing ovation. Bernadette Robinson is clearly the star of the show but the overall enjoyment is enhanced by the support she receives when on stage. The three piece backing band is set in the background and never attempts to upstage the singer. There is some remarkable lighting from Malcolm Rippeth who manages to both spotlight and flood the stage superbly. Designer Justin Nardella brings a black understated style to the stage and Justin Teasdale with Tony Gayle produce a perfect sound design in what could be a difficult acoustic hall. Simon Philips directs the show expertly ensuring the audience is never in doubt as to who the star of the show is.
I left the theatre feeling privileged to have witnessed such a talented actor giving an exceptional performance in a wonderful theatre environment. It was a real highlight of my 2018 theatrical year so far. I loved it!
Reviewed by Steve Sparrow
Photography by Nicholas Brittain
Songs For Nobodies
Wilton’s Music Hall until 7th April