FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Chirolles Khalil, Designer Niall McKeever, Lighting and Projection Designer Timothy Kelly, Sound Designer Katy Hustwick, Stage Manager Lisa Cochrane, Movement Director Max Keeble. Rehearsal and Production Photographer Steve Gregson, Stage Management Intern Morgan Toole, Costumer Supervisor Camille Thiery, Animal Coordinator Performing Pets, Set Construction Twelve34 Productions, Original Poster Artwork Clementine Hanbury, Poster photography Aldo Filiberto. Till September 11th.
‘Sorry Mrs Levy’ says insouciant Elodie as she scoops out pillow feathers for a mercy mission on a clutch of eggs. ‘I hear birds’ says her lover Otto, ‘but they’re a long way off.’ ‘They don’t like the ash in the air round here’ replies Elodie simply.
There’s birdsong, surely, but we start with a numinous buzz of voices suggesting This Beautiful Future may be happening but at the same time in the recorded voices of Claire Skinner’s Alwynne and Ewan Stewart’s Paul, we’re treated at various points to how to make a beautiful future out of prior experience. What they’d do now, working back to innocence.
And that’s strange since Rita Kalnejais’ tender play – premiered in 2015, revived in 2017 – focuses on innocent teenagers, poised to make some mistakes and awkward blisses of those luckier adults, to period and post-period songs. Though not Alwynne’s sexy ‘I bit him deliberately, didn’t pretend I didn’t.’ Katie Eldred’s Elodie and Freddie Wise’s Otto are far more innocent. And tragically, more knowing. They’ll have seen more than world-weary super-experienced lovers.
Those juke-boxing voices waft at the top of the play, and towards the end: intriguing though they never connect to the narrative, part of the point – we’re in a contemporary sound studio as much as a French farmhouse from. It threads through too, perhaps a bump too often as it doesn’t unfold but loops figuratively, if not literally. It’s a reminder, as if others are considering the lovers from a spool now rolling of this flash of coming-together.
It’s Chartres, 1944. Elodie has found a house several lovers use. That ‘Sorry Mrs Levy’ she says cheerfully to the absent owner as she pulls out feathers to nestle a hatching. Mrs Levy who bleaches everything, will bleach again when she returns. ‘Nothing will stop her coming back’ says Elodie warmly. Otto knows more about this and has to tell her. He’s a soldier loyal to Hitler, unblinking; yet here, in this world, a new-hatched adolescent. It turns out Otto hasn’t a monopoly on wartime knowledge. What Elodie can tell him takes the tank tracks out of his world.
Directed by Chirolles Khalil, it’s designed by Niall McKeever with a strong feel for invoking the deserted house with its mattress, pillow and single chair, then with a wall evoking both spikes (German) and eggs (yes) twin shapes erupt from the small backstage wall like an obsidian sci-fi movie. It’s novel, deliberately other. Like the screen sometimes projected on with words, often a soft dawn glow. We see it in high-tech shows but here it subverts, yet doesn’t disturb illusion. Ands behind it when the projection drops a small room stage-right visited in cold light. Below – a hopscotch of light – lozenges on a naturalistic floor erupt in entr’actes after the main first part: the subsequent four combined are shorter than the first.
This design entwines with the lighting and projection design of Timothy Kelly owning a delicate storyboarding of its own. As we’ve seen the sound design of Katy Hustwick is key not just in those recorded voices, but in the chirrup of a new dawn, punctuated with undertones of war. This play lives within a sound capsule, and fragility is what the situation and the lovers’ feelings compass – realised too with brief scenes where movement director Max Keeble moves from naturalism to symbolism as McKeever’s and Kelly’s squares illumine and freeze moments.
The story moves chronologically till it doesn’t. Despite the lurches of trust occasionally straining the relationship, what Kalnejais manages is to dismiss the shlock of betrayal, the antimonies of Resistance, tensions usually attendant on even avowedly insider novels like the tragically-fated Suite Francaise written in 1941 before its author was deported to Auschwitz. Kalnejais was inspired she now famously tells us, by the image of a girl laughing as she’s tarred and feathered for collaborating during the Liberation. Spooling it back imaginatively is an act of reclamation, a defiance, an act for love.
Eldred’s Elodie is the fresh one – and Eldred exalts rapture, so quickly switchbacking on doubts and bursts of pillow-fights, tenderness, desire. It’s she who proposes after only a short couple of meetings – he spied he skinny-dipping by the lake, we learn – they spend the night together. She’s sixteen, he not much older, but she’s the more sexually confident, though for both you feel this is their first time.
Eldred’s strength too is to make Elodie grow – emboldened to honesty, telling Otto about the real war news, what they might do. She’s the optimist, refuses to heed what she knows. Talks of children. Eldred’s switchbacks, sudden mood-swings, the sudden onset of a condition are wrought with pitch-perfect assurance. An Elodie we fall in love with.
She’s not above pilfering, rescuing hatching eggs from a fox-massacre, not returning them to their owner. Unusually, she’s defiant of the Church, thrilled Our Lady of Perpetual Succour’s blown up with its nasty priest; upset at the old lady with cats, both collateral from Lancaster bombers. Otto identifies them for her, impressed with four engines. Which is odd, since he’s waiting to invade England tomorrow. Eldred has to break it to Otto.
Otto knows other aircraft. Discussing how they’d fly he glories in the Me163 rocket-jet (a tiny single-seater, oops) Heinkel III or Junkers 88. Both bombers. He talks of accompanying his dad to a ‘Hitler-gig’ before the war, yet is meant to be younger. Another deliberate anachronism.
Wise’s Otto is warm with Elodie but cold-hunched with nihilism, often using his body to show it; in contrast to Eldred’s warm uncoiled Elodie, a physical match of opposites.
Otto’s believing unlike Elodie that death is the end, you ‘just rot’, is part of his Nazi-adopted bizarre notion of creating a ‘clean’ world with only the right people in it. Kalnejais cleverly plants that word in opposition to bleach-cleaning Mrs Levy, as she’s not coming back, not being in Otto’s eyes ‘clean’. There’s a superb refusal to make Otto a ‘good’ German. Elodie’s brother and Mrs Levy’s son were friends, there are locals, Otto relates the fates of some. Elodie gradually learns this, that he’s not ashamed of it. The miracle is she accepts him despite and still. If anyone’s morally pure, it’s her.
This single span isn’t the end of course There’s four rapid frames to get through (one so brief it’s part of another, six in five). A dawn departure, the outcome, the bizarre monologue from Otto as he decides to directs traffic, U.S. army trucks for instance. Though when we hear ‘red Volkswagens’ that couldn’t have existed in France of all places for another twenty years you realise Kalnejais is playing conceptual tricks with him and us. There’s an outcome, a reversion to Elodie’s aftermath, a reversion to and slow-motion replay of part of Otto’s – all with those lit squares – then two scenes of the same largo pitch as the first. The fifth scene in effect is that lake encounter: wondrous, delicate, edgy, Elodie asks otto his name and to hold his gun and does something outrageous.
Finally a magical scene after their night together, between that first scene and dawn departure. After all that’s happened this – before it happens, mostly – is a magical yes. They’re no longer alone and you’ll have to see it. It’s frankly unbelievable. Not just a coo de theatre, but of tremulous lovers, so easily crushed, so tenderly cradled, so cradling. Children they’d have. Heartstopping.
Period dissonances deny simple period. First love bleaches all out till life bleaches you. Anything’s possible, these teenagers are now, us back when, any time before Romeo and Juliet. Kalnejais’ temporal refusal is a reclamation, leap of empathy to all times and cultures. There’s an absoluteness here we need. We must prove desperate for it or die ourselves.
Performances are beautifully matched. Wise knows he has to play straight to Eldred’s lark-lyrical optimism, and does it with a rapt close-grained attentiveness to his role and its disruption as lover and young man, which doesn’t take him where he thinks it should. Eldred owns all the lope and daring of anyone in love, and almost descants her blessing on their union. She’s also funny, reckless – grabbing a gun, attacking Wise’s Otto with pillows, teasing, testing, fearless. We can see why she laughs.
This is the first JST production since the monumental Footprints Festival, ending under three weeks ago after eleven weeks of 44 productions. That after catastrophic floods and covid, this theatre continues to produce such quality work at an almost bonkers rate – even many Footprints productions were in-house – suggests its second Fringe Theatre of the Year Award should drop the absurd ‘Fringe’ qualifier (it’s Off West End, not Fringe) for a monumental pocket powerhouse.