Brighton Fringe 2017
William Brooke Joyce (1906-1946) nicknamed Lord Haw Haw, a life-long Fascist, was the last person to be executed for treason in the UK. In this playful two-hander co-writers and directors Ross Gurney-Randall and Doug Devaney perform scenes from Joyce’s extraordinary life. In doing so they unpick the relationship of two friends, on stage together, trying to put on a play.
Ross Gurney-Randall specializes in historical biography. He’s brought Albert Pierrepoint, Mussolini, Henry VIII and Goering to life in dramatic monologues that play to his strengths. Now, with fellow writer and actor Doug Devaney, he’s tackling the life of another alpha male, William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw Haw. What Ross hasn’t counted on is that Doug’s concept for the show – and his acting style – differ greatly from his own. Where Ross is for straight sequential storytelling, Doug wants theatrical panache, songs, movement and a range of accents; there may be an agent in the house.
That’s the premise for a highly enjoyable double act that pitches two thespian friends against each other, much as William Joyce pitched himself against the world.
It’s a fascinating life. Joyce was rootless, stateless and restless, shifting a childhood allegiance to Irish Unionism to Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in 1932 and then to Hitler’s Nazis, moving to Hamburg in late 1939. At his peak Joyce was broadcasting German propaganda to seven million British listeners a month, and despite having been born in Brooklyn, and being half Irish, it was his British passport that got him hanged.
At a time when the UK faces increasingly strident nationalism, Joyce’s idealistic commitment to making Britain stronger through Fascism is chilling.
Doug plays Joyce with just the right amount of shiftiness and confidence, grabbing every opportunity to show his acting chops. Ross struggles to keep the storyline clear, using signboards to mark scenes. They often play directly to or among the audience, so we’re involved in the action.
Episodic structures can sometimes limp along, but this has zip, and there are some great lines. One of the journalists at the Daily Express – who came up with the name Lord Haw Haw – says, as bombers move East, “So Brighton, who will save your Pavilion, Max Miller?”
The narrow stage offers little chance for movement and it’s to their credit that the pair avoid endless criss-crossing. Stephen Wrigley’s atmospheric sound design gets the crackles and whizz-bangs of war-time just right, mixed with evocative vocal recordings. When the lights dim to signal Joyce finding his radio voice, and announcing in that clear, monotone drawl “Germany Calling” the room felt several degrees cooler.
Not everything works. A potted overview at the start seems unnecessary, and the competitive on stage relationship could be established earlier, with a bit more variance of theatrical style. Whilst first night line-fumbles can be easily rectified, the lack of any detail of Joyce’s personal life seems an odd omission. He’s presented as a driven, misguided loner, yet a wife and a daughter get a passing mention. What of them? Where, how and who? What agent (or audience) could resist Doug as Mrs Joyce?
Further performances will tighten scenes and allow the play to find its flow. There is a lot of fun ahead for Ross and Doug, playing Ross and Doug. Traditional enough to please history buffs and with some meta-theatre for the modernists, it’s an entertaining and enlightening hour. Ends with a hanging.