It is probably for the best that Gamma Ray Theatre‘s Ay Up Hitler does not overly concern itself with the 1940s. In fact, the war is ditched entirely in favour of the light entertainment stylings of the 1970s and 80s. Writer David McCulloch and director Chris Hawley are clearly fans of the era. The chaotic script and sketchy staging are reminiscent of The Two Ronnies, The Last of The Summer Wine, The Generation Game, Are You Being Served?, Larry Grayson, Dad’s Army and, well, the list goes on.
Fortunately, the cast attacks the slightly cheesy material head-on. McCulloch himself, the appropriately named and wholly engaging Marcus Churchill, rubber-faced Michael Goodwin-Grist and energetic Hannah-Cait Harrison all work tremendously hard. Peter McCrohon though stands out as the main man; his portly Führer sits somewhere between Les Dawson and Hi-De-Hi’s Ted Bovis.
The cast has to work hard because there is a degree of audience discomfort to overcome. The set-up, Hitler and his cronies are alive and well in Yorkshire, is played entirely for laughs. This means listening to the ‘gang’ share abhorrent beliefs with the enthusiasm of holiday camp redcoats. Swastikas are flashed in the first few moments, right arm salutes become dance moves and audiences are forced to consider the Final Solution as an appropriate punchline. I don’t know the history of Ay Up Hitler’s production team, but it seems unlikely anyone has direct experiences that would allow them to feel ownership of such material.
No doubt aware of this and keen to avoid genuine offence, the fourth wall is knowingly broken, with disapproving asides growing until a climax at the midpoint. It’s here that the show falls apart, with anti-Semitism becoming a bridge too far. There’s no real depth to the commentary here though. It’s in the style of the show to move on to the next gag quickly, yet surely gas chamber jokes deserve a more intellectually rigorous justification. But there’s no time for it or even, it seems, for a coherent story. A throwaway reference to finding the secret of eternal life explains why nobody ages. Churchill turns up briefly, but his presence is never explained. How does Eva Braun escape Berlin? Why? Who does she run off with? None of this, ultimately, matters. Ay Up Hitler is billed as a play, but its lack of narrative means it really sits elsewhere. I can imagine it in a drunken cabaret setting or stand-up club where its pace, scattergun humour and broad characterisation might land better.
By the time Boris Johnson and Donald Trump arrive, the comedy is at its broadest. The term ‘Hitler’s playbook’ has been applied to both populist leaders’ techniques and Ay Up Hitler makes the comparison directly. It is here that the weakness in the show’s concept becomes clear. It struggles to be ‘a bit serious’ and utterly silly at the same time. Beware of political clowns is the message, because while you are laughing, they will do terrible things. Only in the final few moments, wordlessly, before the lights go out, is this expressed clearly.
Overall, Ay Up Hitler will prove enjoyable if an affectionate call-back to the good old days of showbusiness appeals. It is performed with skill and energy by a talented hard-working cast. It’s far from clear, however, who the slightly clumsy, clownish satire serves. I am reminded of Peter Cook who knew a bit about the subject. When asked about the point of satire, he would refer to “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” Ay Up Hitler feels a similar slightly empty exercise.
Written by: David McCulloch
Directed by: Chris Hawley
Produced by: David McCulloch
Ay Up Hitler is on tour before running at The Brighton Festival in May. Further details can be found here.