“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.
“Paul Miller’s direction is most assured in the fast-paced, boot-stamping physical moments”
An English sailor, American bombardier and French lieutenant walk into a room. Soon they are sleeping together, playing craps for a Duke’s daughter and arguing for cross-border consensus on that timeless question echoing across dancefloors: what is love. There are plenty of belly laughs, but the unique achievement of this production (a revival from 2019) is in pulling through the real emotional stakes of muddling through relationships in your twenties. Amidst designer Simon Daw’s period design, costumes, hair are characters pleading to know the difference between loving someone and being in love. Sally Rooney eat your heart out.
Philip Labey as the Earl of Harpenden – a wonderfully smarmy Algernon Moncrieff type – is the vehicle for much of this. Where most of writer Terence Rattigan’s characters are comic stocks of military bravado or sheltered naivete, Labey has to run the gamut from diminutive camp drollery to genuine insecurity and back to loving earnestness. He shares a clean sense of comedic timing with Michael Lumsden (his military father in law) and both – with the help of dialect coach Emma Woodvine – have delightfully aristocratic accents down pat.
Conor Glean’s Mid-Atlantic is, unfortunately, not as effective. He has the hulking, rugby-player’s physicality for Lieutenant Mulvaney, but his dialogue proves a stumbling block. He is dealt a tough hand from Rattigan – a script chock-a-block with ‘gee’s ‘darn’s and ‘see ya’s – but Glean’s inflection comes off all too often like Goofy, not an irresistible love-interest. It’s not that When the Sun Shines is exactly a case-study in dramatic realism, but it feels like the accent becomes a distraction: to the audience and Glean himself.
It might not be so obvious if his foil – Jordan Mifsúd’s French lovebird – wasn’t so forcibly funny. His accent isn’t a masterpiece of authenticity either, but he masterfully paints the picture of trembling, white-hot, Parisian passion. It’s a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance, teasing out snickers from the audience even while he forms the background to dialogue he isn’t a part of.
Most importantly, Mifsúd is a key part of the gathering momentum which drives this production home. Paul Miller’s direction is most assured in the fast-paced, boot-stamping physical moments: when the men pile out Harpenden’s room like a clown car, or Mulvaney and Lady Elizabeth Randall (played with burbling naivete by Rebecca Collingwood) drunkenly dance in the living room. There is a general sense of acceleration, checked only by a few moments of romance; these are managed movingly and it is refreshing to see an Intimacy Director, Yarit Dor, on the list of creatives.
Daw’s set is a simple, effective vehicle for these changes of pace: between a drinks cabinet, sofa and table he leaves enough space for Miller to block actors so that the audience never loses sight in the round. Lighting by Mark Doublebay doesn’t have much to do in a sitting room setting, but he squeezes in a charming window effect, which has the stage pooling with sunlight convincingly.
It’s not exactly the radical subversion of gender promised in the programme notes, but it does achieve something unique for a farce. In the intimate Orange Tree Theatre, Miller’s pulls off meaningful relationships between characters who are not all stereotyped and at the same time delivers the frenetic, off-the-walls energy of West End mainstays like One Man, Two Guvnors. The only draw-back to squeezing that much energy into such a space? John Hudson (a quiet star as Harpenden’s butler) literally bounces off a wall as he runs offstage and misses the curtain call with a bloody nose.