Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
  Opened 10 March, 2009

Growing up in Northern Ireland, I absorbed the bitter belief of my parents’ generation that the Irish Free State (as it then was) may nominally have been neutral in World War II but in practice was in many little ways “neutral on their side”; only in recent years has British history begun to realise the extent to which it was neutral on ours. Ian Kennedy Martin’s play aims to probe the matter.
It is set in 1942 in the Irish diplomatic legation in Berlin, whose senior officer Mallin (Sean Campion) is a humourless, earnest adherent to national policy, whereas his junior O’Kane (Owen McDonnell) is a feckless joker. The other two characters are legation housekeeper Christe, who claims to be German-Polish but cooks duck in the Jewish manner, and Kollvitz, a Nazi security officer who asks a lot of probing questions to which he already knows the answers. We know them too. It comes as no surprise that it is the wisecracking O’Kane who grows increasingly fervent about speaking up in condemnation of the concentration camps; nor that Kollvitz will extract sexual favours from Christe as the implicit price for not taking her off to Bergen-Belsen, nor that he will renege on it.
Kennedy Martin has a long and distinguished career as a television writer (having devised six drama series including The Sweeney and Juliet Bravo), but only now in his seventies has he come to theatre. I’m afraid his absence hitherto hasn’t been either his or theatre’s great loss. He writes good lines, but none of the characters here are any more than types, and the central tussle fails to act as an emblem of a nation’s practices and stands merely as the differences of two individuals. Even the title falls flat: O’Kane’s asks how far one should travel on an imaginary train before getting off to protest, but the analogy is strained, only vaguely linked to Bergen-Belsen, and a bit nonsensical, since if the train stops in all those places then surely it isn’t an express? Michael Rudman brings his considerable directorial expertise to bear (though not upon the pronunciation of the few words of German in the script), but he cannot make it look like either an original or a thematically substantial drama.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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