Hansa Studios in Berlin has been home to some of the finest recordings of all time. It’s a place where giants have gone to rediscover themselves or rearrange themselves into something new. It is where David Bowie recorded ‘Heroes’, Iggy Pop recorded ‘Lust for Life’ and U2 recorded ‘Achtung Baby’. In this context, Berlin means something to a lot of music fans. So there is something of a tone already set between the title, Berlin, and the concept: a band reuniting in a Berlin recording studio three years after the suicide of the lead singer.
The script by Holly Whinney is sharp. Berlin is subtitled as “A Dark Comedy” and it more than ticks both boxes. The four members of a successful 1990s Britpop band have had their ups and downs, there are references to drugs and booze. Berlin tackles toxic masculinity with aplomb: we see the toxicity and we see the reasons that it ends as it does. It’s really notable how Whinney’s script shows, not tells. There is balance and nuance, and even as we see the toxicity it doesn’t become a caricature. We can empathise and perhaps even understand some of the grievances the band members have with each other. This is all really smartly done – it’s not subtext or simply the overarching theme, but it’s shown throughout the script and performances. I was quite impressed by a lot of the writing here. I’m also amused by the perfectly timed reference to the Etcetera Theatre’s AC unit which contributes so much to so many shows.
Whilst they arrive separately, initially there is an easy banter between band members in the studio. They almost fall back into this, perhaps even against their instincts, as they come together under strained circumstances. It’s clear that the four have not addressed their grief and the betrayal that some feel; that they have differing memories and opinions and some have ideas of where they consider blame lies. It is Owen Walton as guitarist Martin who stands out, giving a really compelling performance, from the start appearing comfortable and inhabiting the role. There is a bit more up and down in the other band members’ performance, suggesting perhaps Berlin could have done with a little more rehearsal time, as all are talented and have their moments.
Some of the staging feels a little off; the lights dim or flash for scene changes and it’s not immediately clear that this is just a scene change. I wondered for a moment if one was a flashback – were we seeing the band in the 90s setting? The fairly major revelation that paints some of the previous half of the play in a different light is a little rushed and could have been done with another couple of beats in both the script and direction.
Whinney’s script effectively shows us what can happen when men don’t talk about their problems and get wrapped up in them. It suggests a path forward and a way to resolve their issues. Berlin does currently feel more a work in progress, but it’s one that has clear talent in the cast and in particular in Whinney’s script.
Written and Directed by: Holly Whinney
Co-directed by: Cerys Baker
Berlin plays at Etcetera Theatre until 27 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.