White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 7th March 2019
“the six-strong cast work hard to lift this piece, and they all give extremely watchable performances”
Lying in the sleepy heart of the Netherlands is the unassuming village of Westerbork. Off the tourist trail in the Province of Drenthe, it is not easy to find. Almost no one visits, yet it is an area of outstanding beauty, and home of vast stone burial chambers. Over five thousand years old they rival Stonehenge in scale and mystery. But among these megalithic graves are other, more recent ghosts that recall something more sinister and sad: the Westerbork transition camp. From these gates, more than one hundred thousand Jews – including a Dutch girl called Anne Frank – were deported and executed on their arrival at Auschwitz.
Ironically, Westerbork camp was set up by the Dutch at the outbreak of the war as a haven for German Jews fleeing the rising tide of antisemitism in Germany. The Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 gave it a more grisly use and Westerbork became the way-station to death. Labelled ‘the ante-rooms to the gates of Hell’, Westerbork was a holding camp where, amid its tough and unpleasant landscape, the inmates were sometimes allowed to go about normal, daily pursuits. Bizarrely juxtaposed against this bleak backdrop devoid of morality, some of the best cabaret performers of Europe were still able to perform – albeit for the benefit of the SS commandants. There was even an orchestra, restaurants, a school and hairdresser: all a malicious trick calculated to foster a false sense of hope for survival.
Unfortunately “The Project”, Ian Buckley’s play inspired by these events, gives us very little sense of the world it is creating. Focusing on the story of dancer Anna Hilmann and her perplexing relationship with the Nazi officer, Conrad Schaffer, Buckley skirts the complexities of the issues with a superficial narrative. There is no perception of the real dangers the characters are in; as Anna dances, quite literally, for her life. And for the lives of her loved ones.
The text comes with a built-in assumption that the audience already know all the historical facts; and with insufficient reference points we struggle to decipher fully where we are; geographically and within the hearts of the protagonists. Rather than add mystery, this merely strips the drama of tension. In other hands this would make for a dreary evening, but the six-strong cast work hard to lift this piece, and they all give extremely watchable performances. Faye Maughan convincingly conveys Anna’s conflicts and compromises that contaminate her hopes for survival. She has the most difficult choices to make, in contrast to her sister Millie’s (played with a wonderful wide-eyed eccentricity by Eloise Jones) dreamy but jerky idealism. Lloyd Morris plays cabaret impresario Victor Gerrin with a real passion, and Mike Duran’s Nazi commandant is a fine study in guarded menace that lies beneath a softer casing.
But, as with all the cast, the weightlessness of the words they are given fail to anchor them in any realism. Tension drifts away as, for example, an escape plan is discussed as though arranging a furtive midnight feast. Their ultimate destinies: the “promise of future horrors”, is forecast like the drudging prospect of too much homework. While the actors attempt to bring these undercurrents to the surface, the scenes themselves just meander into platitudes that fail to explore the full potential of the material.
We are supposed to be concerned with the fate of these people as they ultimately embark on their fatal journey, but instead we merely wonder where this project is going.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Leo Bacica
White Bear Theatre until 23rd March
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Hen & Chickens Theatre
Opening Night – 13th June 2017
“this piece has the potential to quickly become a powerful, heartbreaking performance”
It is with a heavy heart that I write this review. Aisha deals with a topic area that is horrific. It is a subject area, we tactfully forget or at least I do – underage arranged marriages. Aisha is 14 when she is sold to her distant cousin to marry. Rape, slavery and torture became part of Aisha’s life the moment she was sold. ‘He burnt all my clothes the first week I lived here,’ Aisha discloses to us. He wanted for her to have no possessions of her own, but she often refers to her husband as her ‘possessor’. As you may think, this is far from a willing marriage. Thus, the topic area is heavy. It is frightening and it is heartbreaking. But I felt this play’s attempt to open this Pandora’s box was only satisfactory.
With the right tweaks; changes in direction, characters and at parts the scripts, this piece has the potential to quickly become a powerful, heartbreaking performance. The way this topic deserves to be executed. Aisha needed to take it even further. It needed to become a reflection for us, the audience, we who quietly sit as witnesses to the monstrosities unfolding before our very eyes. At times, in this piece you could see through the actor’s actions. They were at times stiff and lacked intention. However, the intimacy of the Hen and Chickens theatre worked perfectly for the impact this piece aimed to achieve.
With a fantastically detailed set we are transported into this hellish world. We are often left with a sense of helplessness, heartbreak as we intently listen to Laura Adebisi’s heartfelt and emotional monologues. Aisha is Laura’s debut professional Theatre role and this young actress shows much promise. She beautifully and tragically played this abused young girl. Most of the time, I was left in sadness and pain as Laura spoke with such poetic detail about the abuse she had had to endure for three years. This performance was a mammoth task for Laura, she is present at all times and never once did I believe she was anyone else but Aisha. Admittedly, there were moments which needed refining, but I cannot commend enough Laura’s performance in tackling such a complex and difficult character.
Likewise, Sabrina Richmond as Aisha’s mother brought a complex and beautifully tragic performance before our very eyes. I say tragic because of the relationship Aisha and her mother depicted on stage. These moments between them had moments of love, but not the love we often see on stage. This was much more complex because her mom essentially sells Aisha off to her ‘possessor’ in marriage. But, by the end of the piece I could understand why a mother could do this to their daughter; however barbaric it may seem.
Fear could have been pushed further and really impact us, if the character of Aisha’s Husband was better cast. For such a difficult, complex and monstrous character; the performance of Ayo Oyelakin left me with much more to be desired. I could see in his performance that he still felt awkward at playing such a monstrous person. His performance lacked depth, truth and dare I say a human quality. The moment the actor entered on stage, he lacked the presence of a possessor; of a human being capable of committing acts as he has previously been described by Aisha. A massive turn off.
I would also like to celebrate Lloyd Morris and Olivia Valler-Feltham’s performances. Lloyd as Mr. White and Olivia as the Support Worker. On stage we compare Lloyd’s performance to Ayo as the possessor and I feel as though the roles should have been reserved. The subtlety Lloyd brought to his character Mr. White really left me wanting more. In a positive way.
Oliva on the other hand did fantastically well with what she was given and unfortunately it wasn’t much by that of the script. As for what the character represented within this piece I am unsure. What comment was the director making, when the support worker disclosed to Aisha (her client) that she too had been abused by a priest? This was for me an unforgivable sin committed by this piece. This character, in my opinion, was really misused.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only one. Alexander Lincoln’s performance of Dr Valge was satisfactory. It felt like his character was being awkwardly used in an attempt to lift the atmosphere. Unnecessary. My opinion aside, the comedic relief Dr Valge was offering wasn’t the medicine we needed. His part it wasn’t done with the conviction it needed and too many problems arose in my mind with the writing and direction.
Aisha was a difficult piece to watch; regrettably, not only because of the suffering on stage. A play like this needed to make me leave the theatre seriously thinking about Aisha’s story and the 15 million girls a year married as children. Sadly, I didn’t.
Reviewed by Daniel Correia
is at the Hen & Chickens Theatre until 24th June