Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton – until 29 February 2020
Reviewed by Megan Raynor
Alistair Beaton’s stage adaptation of Hans Fallada’s critically acclaimed novel ‘Alone in Berlin’ makes its world premiere at the Royal and Derngate, in collaboration with York Theatre Royal and The Oxford Playhouse and directed by James Dacre. Based on true events uncovered in Gestapo files presented to Fallada post WW2, the play depicts the seemingly small but courageous scheme of a couple to deliver postcards around the city of Berlin – postcards opposing the omnipotent Nazi regime that the city lives and breathes.
Otto (Denis Conway) and Anna Quangel (Charlotte Emmerson) are grief stricken, having recently lost their son in battle. Despite Anna’s best efforts to rouse Otto they are both slaves to the life written out for them, a life of silent resentment to a war regime built upon lies and manipulation. It is only with the influence of the outspoken Trudi (Abiola Ogunbiyi), the fiancé to their late son, are the couple faced with the question whether to sit in silence is as damaging as revelling in the bloodshed.
The adaptation incorporated Jessie Walker as ‘Golden Elsie’ – a mysterious and omniscient figure acting almost as an MC to the narrative. I was intrigued by this cabaret-esuqe character, introduced to her in a striking image stood before the victory column of Berlin wearing the statue’s wings as her own. The frequent commentary employing Orlando Gough’s original soundtrack was lost on me, often just repeating the dialogue through discordant melodies, rather than providing perspective or even light relief. I do commend Walker’s vocal power but felt the addition of the songs acted as a distraction rather than an enhancement.
Aesthetically the production was to be commended, Nina Dunn’s video design incorporating the striking illustrations of Jason Lutes taken from his graphic novel ‘Berlin’. The stripped back set contrasting with the monchromaticism of the bold illustrations was not only visually interesting but highlighted the bleakness of Nazi Berlin, aided by the cold harsh lighting.
The lighter moments of the play, for me, sat more comfortably and ultimately more honestly – the playful banter between Otto and Anna as an example. The acting at times felt inorganic, almost robotic, which I felt sometimes did not do justice to the true tragedy. Perhaps this was a deliberate Brechtian choice along with the song breaks but, for me, it lessened the sympathy. The scenes between Inspector Escherich (Joseph Marcell) and SS Officer Prall (Jay Taylor), as they seek to uncover the culprit behind the postcards, were for me the most commendable moments of acting. I bought into their toxic working dynamic and the constant power play in order to retain their status and dignity.
‘Alone in Berlin’ provides an interesting perspective of Nazi Germany, of those who refused to remain silent for the ease of a quiet life – an important story but a production that lacked heart.