PATRICK MARMION reviews Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia

The gormless grin that hides a nasty Nazi: PATRICK MARMION reviews Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia

Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia (Almeida, London)

Rating:

Verdict: Wartime curio

Fever Pitch (The Hope Theatre, Islington)

Rating:

Verdict: We’ll always walk alone

It’s a clever and intriguing — though not wholly successful — account of the Germans’ six-month occupation of Tunisia, in North Africa, in 1943

Anyone who can get past the title stands an even chance of getting through the rest of Josh Azouz’s deliberately tricky play.

It’s a clever and intriguing — though not wholly successful — account of the Germans’ six-month occupation of Tunisia, in North Africa, in 1943.

Azouz focuses on a love triangle between a Jewish man who has been interned by the Nazis; his wife; and her Arab lover . . . who is a guard at the camp where her husband is held. 

Their already fragile relationships are exposed when the German commandant, nicknamed Grandma (Ade Edmondson) takes a shine to the terrified wife.

Billed as a black comedy, Azouz’s dramatic instincts are more arresting than that genre suggests. His play opens with the Jewish man, Victor, buried up to his neck. 

The guard, Youssef, is ordered to urinate on him. Nasty, yes, but powerful; and reminiscent of that great exponent of theatrical torture, Samuel Beckett.

Preoccupied with body parts (not unlike Beckett), Azouz has a great feel for seemingly rambling prattle which actually has sinister undertones. I also liked the sardonic writing (‘The camp was quite outdoorsy,’ says Victor, when explaining the sunburn he suffered during his ordeal).

B ut Azouz allows too much tension to leak away in the form of gags and frivolous chatter. After digging up themes of inter-racial conflict, it all climaxes in a trivial lovers’ spat.

Max Johns’ set of sand dunes made from wooden boxes is a similarly fascinating mix of beauty, surrealism and improvisation.

Edmondson, recovering from a knee injury, hobbles about with a walking stick. But despite this, it’s one of his best stage turns. He has a warm, gentlemanly manner and a halfwit grin, masking his malignant intent.

Yasmin Paige’s motivation as the Jewish wife Loys is needlessly muddied by Azouz, but Ethan Kai, as her Muslim lover, has a warm, benign simplicity. And Pierro Niel-Mee, as Victor, is an intense and impulsive actor who looks destined for great things.

Much goes awry, but we shouldn’t throw the Nazi out with the bathwater. If Azouz can hitch his dramatic instincts to a potent plot, the sky’s the limit.

Just around the corner from the Almeida — and a short distance from what should still be known as Highbury — I participated in the equivalent of an AA meeting: a stage adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1992 misery memoir about being an Arsenal fan, Fever Pitch. For yes, reader, ‘My name is Patrick, and I am a Gooner.’

With Tottenham at the top of the league and Arsenal at the bottom, pointless and goalless, I went in search of solidarity, consolation, and maybe even a little healing.

Hornby has been battling his Arsenal addiction since 1968, and the story makes light work of the burden of being a fan in those days, amid racism, rat burgers and ritual match-day violence.

But he also admires the light-heartedness of Cambridge United fans who, while he was at university, remained upbeat despite the fact the U’s didn’t win a single match all season.

Just around the corner from the Almeida — and a short distance from what should still be known as Highbury — I participated in the equivalent of an AA meeting: a stage adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1992 misery memoir about being an Arsenal fan, Fever Pitch

As Hornby, Jack Trueman is an affable everyman in this cheerfully creaky production.

What did I learn? That ‘football only works if you believe’, so you must kid yourself that it matters. And, following the Wenger years, ‘it’s not enough to win, you also have to suffer’. So wise.

With that in mind, I may yet be able to watch the next match against Norwich . . . from between my fingers, of course. 

Big Big Sky (Hampstead Theatre, Downstairs)

Rating:

Verdict: Big big heart 

There are low stakes but lovely warm feelings in Tom Wells’s bird-watching story at the Hampstead Theatre. It’s a tiny tale of a small community centred round a summer café in Kilnsea vilage near Hull, rubbing along and trying to better their lives

There are low stakes but lovely warm feelings in Tom Wells’s bird-watching story at the Hampstead Theatre. It’s a tiny tale of a small community centred round a summer café in Kilnsea vilage near Hull, rubbing along and trying to better their lives.

Geeky Brummie Ed (Sam Newton) is hoping to land a job as a warden at the nearby nature reserve. He falls for café waitress Lauren (Jessica Jolleys), who’s recently lost her mother. She doesn’t know what to do with her hapless, well-meaning dad (Matt Sutton), who’s trying to turn his sadness around by taking up bird watching – like everyone else.

Café owner Angie (Jennifer Daley) has small ambitions and secrets of her own, in a world where the height of excitement is spotting a tundra bean goose in the estuary.

Each character quietly carries their own pain; and each has a wry take on themselves – including vegan Ed’s rueful comment that ‘Greta knows best’. Indeed, Newton plays him with an awkward sweetness that’s as infectious as Jolleys’ emotional, gutsy and vulnerable Lauren.

Tessa Walker’s production on Bill Bailey’s simple café set, with blue skies painted on walls and model birds dangling overhead, perfectly evokes a place where ‘an albatross can change the world just by passing through it’. Happy sniffles all round at the end.

The System (live stream) 

Rating:

Verdict: Clever mind games

The System, a clever one-woman psychological drama written by and starring Emily Head (known for The Inbetweeners and Emmerdale), is an interesting by-product of the pandemic, in the nicest way.

It was meant to be performed before a live audience at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, but instead director Guy Unsworth devised a way of live-streaming it in a single camera take — a first for theatre.

Special mention should go, then, to camera operator Ben Eeley, who brings moments of intimacy — and, at times, claustrophobia — to this one-sided duologue, all while wearing 60kg of kit for 70 minutes.

The System, a clever one-woman psychological drama written by and starring Emily Head (known for The Inbetweeners and Emmerdale), is an interesting by-product of the pandemic, in the nicest way

We are in a cell-like cage and Head (top), playing about ten characters, speaks to a detective investigating the death of Paul, murdered at his own birthday party. Head’s characters have various relationships to Paul: he was her stepfather, a friend, or someone she barely knew.

But why were they all at the party? How did they know each other? And what does it mean when one of them says: ‘We’re in the system’?

There are delightful flashes of dry humour. Naomi, a plain-speaking Yorkshirewoman who didn’t like Paul, says: ‘It was a normal party. Until he died, obviously.’ While well-spoken Florence says, like every guilty person ever held in a police cell: ‘I shouldn’t be here.’

The accomplished writing keeps us guessing about what is happening until well into the second half and, while some characters are more clearly delineated than others, Head’s performance is gripping.

Available to stream from September 8 to December 5 at originaltheatreonline.com.

Veronica Lee

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