SOMETHING Underground Theatre Company was founded by writer/director Jonathan Brown in 2006.
The company’s work tends to be visceral and uncompromising, and this, Brown’s latest play, is no exception. A Good Jew was never going to be an easy evening’s entertainment, but little did we know just how riveting and disturbing a piece of theatre it would prove to be.
It is 1938 and Sol and Hilda play in the Frankfurt Sinfonietta. They are in love but Hilda’s father is a high ranking Nazi official whereas Sol is Jewish. Someone affirms early on in the play: “1939 is going to be a good year!” How wrong they were.
In the central and immensely challenging role of Hilda Brandt, Isabella McCarthy Sommerville gave a very fine performance. Her Act I argument with her father Klaus, played by Simon Hellyer, for example, was not only gripping and well-paced, but wholly believable, as indeed was the immensely difficult scene where she, by this time a heart-breaking and waiflike figure, is reunited with him in his new position as Commandant of the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. Hellyer himself gave a fine performance in these scenes too, someone clearly torn between family and a chilling sense of duty – “we all must do what we must do” he proclaims. Unfortunately, he was less convincing during the later and immensely important section when he is attempting to destroy incriminating evidence as the camp is about to be liberated. Here things became just too melodramatic and needed reining in somewhat.
In the role of Sol, the young Jewish musician who, with forged ID papers, reinvents himself to become Kurt Schmidt, the Commandant’s adjutant, Daniel Grimston gave another excellent performance. “It feels so good to be accepted … You don’t know what it’s like” he declares to Hilda. From being spat at and vilified, little did he know, little did we know, where his new life would take him. Grimston managed his transformation most convincingly and, without wishing to give the plot away, the subsequent scene where he faced his mother was harrowing in the extreme. Her words “We all have to survive” were to have profound implications.
Sol’s mother, Martha, was played by Chrissie White who also took on the character of the Red Cross inspector. Clearly an experienced actress, she brought both compassion and dignity to her two roles. Her husband, Gustav (David Stephens) was similarly well cast, and his heartfelt rant against the Third Reich was utterly convincing as was his prophetic warning that: “nobody is safe tonight”. Unfortunately, Luci Flo, who played their young daughter Anya, was rather too old for the part. Whilst her portrayal was really quite sensitive and the episode with the Red Cross Inspector, in particular, most moving, I felt something was lost by not casting a younger actress.
The play itself was in many short scenes and although the set and props were minimal (usually just table and chairs), the frequent changes often seemed unnecessarily protracted making the performance just a bit too fragmented. Rather more care could perhaps have been taken over the accompanying choice of music as well; for me at least, there was an irritating inconsistency in the selection of pieces.
With at least one proficient musician in the cast, it was a great pity more could not have been made of this, particularly as the play centred on the lives of two members of an orchestra. The propaganda film mime sequences too, although perhaps a good idea, were overused and slowed the overall flow of the drama particularly towards the end of the play. The final denouement however, was little short of stunning and the closing lines together with the somewhat enigmatic title will continue to haunt me for some while yet.
A Good Jew is a well-researched, thought provoking play. It continues at various venues until early July. For more details visit the website, www.somethingunderground.co.uk