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Gabriel by Moira Buffini at the Richmond Theatre

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 2nd Apr 2017 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

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There is no justice left, only war.

Although Britain was never occupied by Nazi Germany, the Channel Islands were left without protection as they were considered strategically unimportant and quickly taken over by the Germans. Moira Buffini's first play, premiering in the Soho Theatre in 1997, takes place on Guernsey in 1943 when the tide was turning for the German invaders.

The widowed Jeanne Becquet (Belinda Lang) and her former housekeeper Margaret Lake (Jules Melvin) are running a black market operation to keep their home together and to overcome food shortages. Jeanne had become very friendly with Reichart, the former German commanding officer of the island, to protect her family - her adolescent daughter Estelle (Venice Van Someren) and her Jewish daughter-in-law Lily (Sarah Schoenbeck). Reichart has now been replaced and Jeanne has gone to meet the new German commander.

As the performance begins, Estelle, Jeanne's young daughter, is holding a candle and drawing "a square of power" to conjure up help against the Nazis. Mrs Lake is skeptical as usually a circle is required if this magical nonsense is to work at all when Lily comes storming in, asking for help - a man has washed up on the shore who looks like her missing husband Miles. It is impossible to tell who he is or where he came from as he is not wearing any clothes. Mrs Lake is reluctant to help the stranger, who might be an enemy, but Estelle leaves with Lily to help and they take the unconscious man to the attic.

Meanwhile Jeanne Becquet returns, accompanied by the new German commander Von Pfunz (Paul McGann). While Von Pfunz is residing in Jeanne's Hermitage, she has to live in a run-down shack. Assuming that the German officer has only a rudimentary knowledge of English, Jeanne insults him at will. Of course Von Pfunz understands every word Jeanne says but instead of reproaching her he appreciates her honesty: "To hear the truth is a privilege." The stunning red dress Jeanne is wearing, might help.

Jeanne is none to pleased when she finds out about the stranger in her attic, whom Estelle has named Gabriel, hoping that he is the "angel" who has come to their rescue. When Gabriel (Robin Morrissey) regains consciousness, he suffers from amnesia and appears to be fluent in both German and English. Is he an RAF pilot, an SS man who was sent to the island as an interrogator, a local boy or the angel that Estelle imagines?

Although the title of the play is "Gabriel", Moira Buffini's play focuses on the women in her story and their hardship during the war as they are left to fend for themselves whilst their fathers and husbands are off to fight. Belinda Lang is very good as the aristocratic Jeanne, whose family history goes back to the Norman conquerors, but who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family. Paul McGann is charming in a rather reptilian way as would-be poet Von Pfunz who condones Estelle's pranks because he is attracted to her mother. But his charm turns to ice when he tells the willful Estelle that she might be in error if she believes she cannot be killed because she is only a child, “My dear, there’s something you have not yet comprehended about war.” The chemistry between Von Pfunz and the aristocratic Jeanne is working very well as Jeanne finds herself attracted to the German officer despite herself. Venice Van Someren convinces as the quixotic Estelle and Sarah Schoenbeck is lovely as the angelic Lily who misses her husband and yearns for a friend, which she hopes to find in the attractively innocent Gabriel, a charming and boyish Robin Morrissey. Jules Melvin is pragmatic and loyal as Margaret Lake, much more a comrade in arms than a housekeeper. 

The atmospheric set by Carla Goodman is composed of a wooden shack with an unfinished look entailing a kitchen and an attic room that could be interpreted as heaven as Gabriel resides there, whilst the unseen German tunnels underneath the house are certainly hell. A permanently overcast sky in the background adds to the melancholy mood.

A compelling melodrama offering some comical relief.

By Carolin Kopplin

Starting off at Richmond Theatre, the next stop of the tour will be the Liverpool Playhouse on 4th April. 

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including one interval 

Adult themes and content. Contains strong language and scenes of a violent nature.

Recommended age 11+

Tour dates and tickets: http://www.gabrieltheplay.co.uk/tickets

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