Richmond Theatre 28 March – 1 April, National tour until May. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
1943, and for two and a half years the German occupation of Guernsey has seen the women doing what they can to protect their families and homes. For Jeanne Becquet (Belinda Lang) that has meant sleeping with the commanding officer while he turns a blind eye to her black-market activities and allowing her family to live in peace. All this changes when a new officer takes command. The Becquets are moved out of their comfortable home into a farmhouse and Von Pfunz (Paul McGann) sets his sights on Jeanne as her daughter Estelle (Venice Van Someren) wages a supernatural campaign against the invaders in her home. The discovery of a young man on the beach creates conflict and danger for the Becquets as they secretly nurse him back to health. He has no memories and switches between English and German in conversation. Convinced he is an angel, Estelle names him Gabriel, but the adults’ attitudes are more suspicious – is he a downed RAF pilot, an SS officer, an escaped slave worker or a Guernsey local?
Carla Goodman’s inspired set adds to the biblical metaphors, with Gabriel hidden above the kitchen in an elevated attic room, and constant references to the men tunnelling under the house – the slave workers in a living hell, accompanied constantly by the sound of waves hitting the cliffs beneath the farmhouse.
After a mystical opening scene, with Estelle conjuring an enchantment, the play’s light-hearted tone is abruptly squashed as Von Pfunz, after allowing Jeanne to insult him and spill many personal secrets all evening by playing dumb, reveals his perfect English. The childish enthusiasm he displays for Jeanne’s honesty and his passion for poetry do nothing to hide the clinical brutality of his beliefs, and McGann nails his almost scientific zeal for purity in Europe. McGann gives a masterclass in evil hiding behind civility – charming and erudite, but snapping into Nazi rhetoric in the blink of an eye. Belinda Lang is fantastic as Jeanne – she has most of the best lines, and can play arrogant sarcasm in her sleep. But here she must gradually strip away the veneer of strength to show the frightened and desperate woman willing to do anything to protect her family. The pain and shame she feels as she makes her choices in the play’s climatic scenes are palpable.
Robin Morrissey as Gabriel is haunting and strangely charismatic as the blank Gabriel, and his scenes with Lily (a passionate Sarah Schoenbeck) and Estelle are very moving, as the three cling to each other in their search for a family and stability. Venice van Someren makes Estelle a convincing adolescent, funny and frustrating, with just the right amount of Bonnie Langford style histrionics to be sweet rather than annoying. Jules Melvin’s performance as housekeeper Mrs Lake is subtle and fun. Her sighs and comments as she watches the Becquets and their antics are a joy, as is the strength of all the female characters.
Director Kate McGregor has created a wonderfully tight and evocative production. The questions about how educated people could embrace Nazi ideals are still puzzling and relevant in today’s political climate, and Moira Buffini’s wise and witty writing is thought provoking without preaching. Gabriel’s illness is described as “something growing in your head” and the word cancer isn’t mentioned, until Von Pfunz, in the middle of a seemingly charming and rational speech, describes Lily a Jew, as the cancer in Jeanne’s house, drawing gasps from the audience.
Gabriel is still entertaining and full of tension and shocks after 20 years. This UK touring production is a gem, if it’s coming to a theatre near you, get a ticket now. And if it’s not, buy a ticket anyway – it’s worth the journey.
UK Tour Schedule
28 March – 1 April Richmond Theatre
4 – 8 April Liverpool Playhouse
18 – 22 April Theatre Clwyd
24 – 29 April Theatre Royal Windsor
15 – 20 May Yvonne Arnaud Guildford