John Van Druten
Directed by Anthony Lau
Pros: Great writing, great acting, great direction, great music, great costumes, great set design (I could go on!).
Cons: I know I have to write something here but I’m struggling to think of anything. The herbal cigarettes were a bit stinky, I guess.
Our Verdict: A fantastic evening with stunning performances. Hilarious, devastating and thought-provoking.
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
|Credit: Nicolai Kornum|
I Am A Camera is set a few years prior to the horrors of the Holocaust in the hedonistic world of the Weimar Republic. It is a story which is heavily based on real events, taken from Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin. The story is (for better or worse) the inspiration behind the hit Broadway musical and film Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York. It has a compelling storyline and some truly fascinating characters, like Natalia Landauer, a Jewish heiress, and a young, gay Isherwood (both members of the groups most at risk to the impending Nazi intimidation).
The story centres on Christopher and his friend Sally Bowles (the character made famous by Liza Minnelli). Christopher is a fictional version of Isherwood himself who struggled with his own identity and sexuality around that time. Bowles is the personification of a decedent pre-Hitler Berlin – young, carefree and oblivious to the horrors yet to come. They are both English creative types – Sally is an actress and Christopher a budding writer.
Harry Melling (Christopher) brings real charm and some inspired little quirks to his character, very different from any Isherwood incarnation I’ve seen before. He is a very fine actor indeed and worthy of this complex role. Melling is helped along by an impeccable supporting cast, particularly Joanne Howarth who plays Fraulein Schneider, his landlady. She is portrayed as a good person but we also learn that she is a Nazi supporter and an anti-Semite*. This play makes the point that, at least according to Isherwood, many good German people were misled by lying, manipulative Nazi propaganda.
Rebecca Humphries bravely took on the role of the painfully immature socialite Sally Bowles and, in doing so, managed to steal the show. This was not an easy feat considering the calibre of acting elsewhere in this fine production but she held the audience’s attention from the first moment she arrived on stage in her twinkling black playsuit right through to the last. It would have been all too easy to make this character irritating and obnoxious but Humphries manages to add real depth and her many faults only served to increase her likability. From what I could tell she seemed to have enraptured the whole audience. During the interval all I could hear from other tables was “Sally-this” and “Sally-that” mixed with an occasional comment like “Why is there a bunch of embarrassed-looking people running around in 17th Century costume over there?”. But more on THAT later!
The set was filled with authentic-looking 1930s props and the stage itself was resting upon an enormous pile of tattered letters, magazines, suitcases and old photographs. To me, this seemed to represent the calm before the storm. Trains rattling along above the Southwark Playhouse made everything seem all the more authentic. The costumes were beautifully made and suited each character perfectly. Stunning original music by Angus MacRae complimented the action brilliantly and his jazzy undertones were perfectly in keeping with the time period.
My one issue with the evening was not with the show, but with the Southwark Playhouse itself as actors from another show were forced to navigate through our audience to get to their dressing rooms. This occurred both during the interval and as we were leaving. The poor actors looked mortified especially the semi-naked one forced to get changed in the hallway at the end. Surely there is a way of solving this problem? The Southwark Playhouse is one of the best theatres in London so something like this just seemed out of place. Anyway, rant over!
I Am A Camera is a stunning tribute to a great man and a true gay icon. It is theatre at it’s absolute best, and the sheer perfection that the production achieved merits our coveted fifth star! It is so full of good stuff I could have easily continued raving about it for a lot longer but instead I just urge you to go and see it. Go see it!
*According to Isherwood, the real Fraulein Schneider was not anti-Semitic in any way. In fact, quite the opposite. The character, it seems, was altered by Van Druten for dramatic purposes. It can’t be the nicest feeling in the world, to find out in the autumn of your years that you have been dramatized into a Nazi to spice things up a bit. Poor lady!
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments in the section below!
I Am A Camera runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 22nd September 2012.
Box Office: 020 7407 0234 or book online at http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/