Based on true events, this world premiere production features three completely engaging performances – but it does seem to run out of steam towards the end.
April 17th 1936 – a group of school boys and their teacher went hiking on the Schauinsland mountain in South-Western Germany but ended up being caught up in a blizzard that led to tragedy. This horrific story is recounted in this fascinating (if slightly too drawn out) new play from Pamela Carter, which focuses on nationhood, determination and courage as seen through the eyes of three boys who were part of the group.
Starting spritely enough, Oscar Toeman’s production (while lacking in set) really brings the story to life through numerous different techniques to ensure that what the production lacks visually – capturing Carter’s narrative extremely well. This of course includes putting on a huge emphasis on all the performances of the cast – each of whom are really distinctive in their own way, as well as the use of smoke effects that really capture the increasingly ominous weather and lighting design by Elliott Griggs who really manages to enhance the drama in a subtle way. As a production – it is simple but effective.
While Carter’s play of course starts with great energy and is completely engaging from the start – revealing the excitement that the boys feel about their upcoming hike, you feel a sense of foreboding – particularly when the boys discuss how they tried to engage with the boys in Germany – many of whom by this point were part of the Hitler Youth. But of course, the play takes a swerve away from being about the rise of Hitler and the War (despite later on it is made clear that the tragedy was later used for propaganda purposes) and turns out to be more the spirit and blind optimism in the face of trouble. The script also has some twists that make you think – in particular the way in which Eaton tries to goad some of the boys into a reaction to what he is saying or how another unseen school boy confronts Lyons as to whether he is a Jew – it makes you realise that not everything is as it seems and these boys had to grow up very quickly in the face of adversity that unfolds.
However, it does have to be said that the play begins to run out of steam towards the end – the speech given by the Tour Guide (excellently and magnetically performed by Eva Magyar) about the events after it feels a little bit clunky and more like a lecture no matter how well intentioned. It feels as though the aftermath could have been dealt with in a much better way that would generate more emotion.
But the performances from the cast are all brilliantly executed. In particular, I admired Vinnie Heaven’s transformation Eaton from this playful, impish and outgoing character to someone who is a lot meeker – which is heartbreaking to see. Matthew Tennyson as Lyons is equally good as you see his inner turmoil and guilt about trying to hid the fact he is a Jew and is trying to get through the experience with as much dignity as possible, while Hubert Burton as Harrison is a really nice balance between them both.
Overall, while the story is compelling to watch – I do feel as though it runs out of things to say by the end – despite a well thought out production. Worth a visit for the performances and the production.
By Emma Clarendon
The Misfortune of the English continues to play at the Orange Tree Theatre until the 28th May.