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FringeReview UK 2022

The Misfortune of the English

Orange Tree Theatre

Genre: Biographical Drama, Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

Director Oscar Toeman, Designer Jasmine Swan, Lighting Designer Elliot Griggs, Sound Designer Daniel Balfour, Movement Director Rachel Leah-Hosker, Musical Director Naomi Hamilton, Casting Director Christopher Worrall.

Production Manager Stuart Burgess, Deputy Production Manager Lisa Hood, DSM Vicky Zenetzi, ASM Rhea Jacques, Company Stage Manager Jenny Skivens, Costumer Supervisor Rebecca Carpenter. Production Photographer Tommy Ga-Ken Wan, Programme Designer and Editor Ben Clare.

Till May 28th


It’s hard not to see why Pamela Carter was inspired in 2016 by the history of a charismatic Englishman leading a group of twenty-seven into a disastrous mountain-climb with no way out, and refusing a way back.

What locals in Freiburg termed The Misfortune of the English did indeed occur eighty years earlier, as on April 17th 1936 twenty-seven-year-old Strand School master Kenneth Keast led twenty-seven ill-clad schoolboys out of the village of Hofsgrund with a 1:100,000 map through a sudden snowstorm to a dire if successful (‘on its own terms’) climb up the Schaulnsland; but not to the other side as planned, and not quite all the way back either.

Local villagers mounted a rescue: for propaganda purposes the Hitler Youth got the credit and funeral rites to bolster increasingly fraught Anglo-Nazi relations. It’s like something out of Geoffrey Household’s contemporaneous Rogue Male where the protagonist imagines a like ceremony mounted for him, after  being murdered. With licence, he was probably thinking of this incident.

A cast of three are on a bare stage throughout most of the ninety-five minutes: Hubert Burton’s responsible, sober Harrison; Vinnie Heaven’s larky, sporty, scatological if vulnerable Eaton; the younger (and short-trousered) but already more sceptical, introverted Lyons, Matthew Tennyson’s portrayal of an intellectual in the making.

One striking admission is their identifying the Strand as a small public school designed for lower-middle class parents to budget their boys into an ever-expanding empire administration; and a few for scholarship.

Eva Magyar’s wry, period-detached Tour Guide doesn’t appear till her eighth pronouncement. We’ll come to that.

A bare space then two-thirds through a far more tangible set, seems something of a trend: the National’s current The Corn is Green (designed by ULTZ) emphasises exactly this way of having both worlds. So designer Jasmine Swan leaves everything to the imagination initially, in a swept space; though later much dry ice makes its way onstage.

And there’s a coup with a model of the mountain and villages popping up with Magyar’s finally striding on: her voice has punctuated proceedings seven times with musak (one of music director Naomi Hamilton’s smaller things) and a laconic 21st century take on past and present. Carter, taking her cue from the local German historian chronicling all this, suggests Germans learn from history, we engage in nostalgia.

Carter refuses period English, quite deliberately peppers dialogue with for instance Eaton’s ‘thinking out of the box’ phrase, or words not even current in 1936. There’s gesturing to exercise and marching, as movement director Rachel Leah-Hosker suggests drill, striding, disorientation. Hamilton’s use of vocal snatches (including ABBA and the school song) and director Oscar Toeman’s way with storytelling points up Carter’s witty use of prolepsis – and a refusal to sink into period. The boys, especially adult-seeming Hamilton, anticipate the aftermath – and its contradictions. They punctuate with ‘but we weren’t told that’ or ‘the enquiry found’. So the whole is a continual negotiation of present-tense narrative with past-tense-future outfall.

That the latter is fact interfuses the imaginary of these three boys,  differently fated. Lyons the youngest, still thirteen proves despite eating his lunch early, tougher than he appears; as well as more sceptical, though first to feel extreme cold. He also fends off anti-Semitism from another boy who’s fallen out of favour, turning tables. Tennyson’s careful sotte voce performance draws you in.

Heaven’s skirling laughter furnishes a precise contrast. Larky Eaton, the sporting hero whose father so vigorously campaigned for justice and in fact the oldest, nearly fifteen, expends his energies wildly: at first in scatological jokes – suggesting the first thing gentlemen should do is enquire if the other’s shat well on getting up; all with appropriate high spirits.

Burton draws you in: a teenager who grows up fast. He sports imperial nostrums with a head-boy knowingness; that blossoms finally to something other, relating the trio’s fates to each. This is after they’ve reached the summit, looking down on their past from an Olympian height with the consolations of philosophy. Each though has to turn to the last act as Hamilton wishes Lyons good luck when – still strong despite being coldest and youngest – he yomps downhill. Stoic spokesman Hamilton keeps his powder dry for the powdery snow threatening to envelop them.

All through we get intimations of the Empire’s immortality, initial superiority to the loudly-hailed ‘Deutsche Jugend’, who don’t smile back as the English march out scantily clothed even for summer. The group refuse at several points to heed local advice. For group read Keast, who despite inaugurating futuristic group decisions smiles benignly as each boy raises his hand. Think Henry V about taking the easier path at this point.

As the snow closes in, it turns into a curiously German parable too. Not as Eaton thinks, out of a dark fairy-tale but close to that. We get the innkeeper suggesting to Keast they don’t proceed, but giving directions. Finally a postman out of Schubert’s Winterreisse appears in the blizzard by a bleak signpost saying the same thing. Hamilton notes: ‘this was our last chance to turn back.’ Or as Lyons comments obliquely of snow-fights: ‘what is it about snow that engenders such violence?’

Sound designer Daniel Balfour deploys a slow crescendo of local colour, naturally ending in storm. Lighting designer Elliot Griggs makes much of storm darkness too and otherwise steady light.

Keast commented to his girlfriend that despite everything, his holiday had seen some of the happiest days of his life. Such blindness is too apt a metaphor; Carter doesn’t use it. Many families formed postwar bonds with villagers they knew were the true rescuers. Carter’s Guide tells us that instead. Beyond the stress of imperial fantasies and class aspiration, Carter’s schoolboys embody human connectedness, warmth, a final camaraderie before the chill of history. Unmissable.