Edinburgh Fringe 2011
A musical about anti-semitism in the second world war is not one of the more obvious crowd-pleasers. Also it turns out to be being performed by eighteen teenagers from a Quaker academy in New York. The scene seems to be set for a mawkish or meretricious evening. That We Didn’t Have Time to be Scared surpasses all expectations is partly the strength and interest of the piece, and the surprising clarity of its staging, but as much to do with the pleasure of seeing this young cast invest so much honesty in their telling of a story so alien to their own experience. Seeing the show through their eyes is as fascinating as seeing it through ones own.
This musical (really more a play with songs) is based on the diaries of two sisters, Inge and Lucy (one of whom was in attendance) who were chased by the tide of anti-semitism from Austria to Britain and then to Trinidad during the war in an attempt to keep them out of harms way. While the two sisters (played by Maia Collier and Elizabeth Sharpe-Levine) look back, they see their younger selves (Julia Newitt and Gloria Fortuna) and various of their friends and family.
This is all brought briskly to life in a staging by the writers Tracey Foster and Andrew Geha, perhaps the most impressive non-professional staging I’ve seen at the Fringe in recent years.
Its strongest passages are moments of subtle understatement. Early on, the family try to find a home at a time and place where there is clearly to be no room at the inn. They assure someone “we won’t be a burden on anyone”. Towards the end, the girls’ father, clearly dying, tells them “Everything will be fine”. “I believed him”, one sister tells us. “I didn’t” says the other, quietly.
Geha’s songs, commendably sung and performed by the composer on a piano (with an often superfluous guitarist), are melodic mid-tempo ballads with an unexpected 70s rock tinge – rather closer to Godspell than to Fiddler on the Roof. They largely allow a dramatic mood to be expanded rather than the story to be developed. In that sense, the songs accompany the play rather than integrate with it like a more typical musical. Only the finale, “Home”, an up-tempo happy ending number, rings false in an otherwise well judged collection of songs.
There are two real pleasures that one hopes to find at the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is a production which takes risks; the second is one which finds an audience. Seeing a musical about children in the second world war while sitting in a capacity audience, We Didn’t Have Time to Be Scared achieves both and does so with commendable delicacy and honesty.
It was a delight to see them having such a triumph with it.