Tales From the Vienna Woods

Mon 22nd – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Pat Massey

at 10:46 on 25th Aug 2011

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When a pig-headed lady adorns the poster for a show whose undercurrent is the rise of Fascism, you may imagine a German 'Animal Farm'. In fact, this is principally a domestic drama chronicling the downfall of pretty much everyone involved. Unsurprisingly, it was derived from an opera.

If this sounds too deep for a lunchtime show, be assured these Italia Conti students deliver the tragedy with style. A set of white boxes makes for a crisp interpretation of the Danube, against which the colour palette of the costumes- floral, silver, blue- impresses itself more on the eye. Similarly, the variety of accents, from Geordie to Welsh, impresses itself on the ear. Somewhat inexplicable, but you just accept it.

In the cast there is no weak link. Perhaps two performers stood out for me. The first: Jack Gogarty, whose Uncle Zauberkonig defies initial comparisons with early Hugh Laurie to plumbs the depths of likeability. What could be dismissed as randy becomes seedy in the hands of Gogarty; what could be a blustery enmity against -SPOILER- is played frigidly, and alienates us the more. The second standout: Lois Deeny as Valerie. Deeny's gift is her facial control; neither her smile or her eyes are ever at ease, and serve well a character whose polka-dot dress belies certain political beliefs which take the audience aback. Yet the script involves several voltes-face in character which the other actors make both surprising and convincing.

A big plus is the assimilation of the Viennese spirit into the show. We are promised 'the distant tune of a Strauss waltz' in the programme but the four-part harmony on offer here, plus accordion, spans more than one tune and is a pleasure to listen to. Furthermore, German superstition is alluded to in the script itself- one character's handwriting is described as that of a vampire- and through directorial decisions: the whole-cast whispering of 'Stupid cow', for example, in a moment more unnerving than might be apparent here.

The weakness of the piece is, to the group's credit, not their fault. Fascism is meant to be understated in this play, but perhaps not this much. A German captain who looks set to become embroiled in romantic machinations hits a narrative cul-de-sac: a wasted opportunity to study the rise of the Nazi. Yes, there is an anti-Semitic outburst (place your bets, people) but neither it nor the Jews are referenced again.

Still, for Britain's oldest theatre arts training school to be offering this shows at five pounds is a steal. Ausgezeichnet.

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Helen Catt

at 12:19 on 25th Aug 2011

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In the early 1930s, the shadow of Fascism is beginning to encroach through Germany, but the Vienna Woods are as yet untouched. The characters lurch through feuds, betrayals and romances, oblivious of the tide that is dragging them towards the final tableau. As this shadow looms, the continuous strains of Strauss - brilliantly arranged by Graeme Du Fresne to become utterly haunting - seem to stand in mockery of the fleeting relationships of the characters.

The majority of the plot revolves around the tragic fall of Marianne, played sensitively by Aisling Jarret-Gavin, who leaves her fiancé and father for a no-good gambler, and pays the ultimate price. It has to be said; this aspect of the plot regularly tends towards melodrama. However, the production isn't looking to pull heartstrings, but to show the self-absorption and self-interest of the petty bourgeoisie, utterly disinterested in the upheavals in the outer world – a warning to Horváth's original audience and a tragedy to a modern one.

Despite the numerous flaws inherent in almost all of the characters, they are acted in a way that makes them immediately sympathetic. Even the unnervingly Aryan Erich, when with Valerie, is given moments of touching vulnerability by Tom Couch. It seems a pity that such a powerful character is later forced by the script to be played for laughs, but considering Horváth's morbid sense of humour, this is hardly surprising. Jack Gogarty plays Zauberkonig with an enchanting whimsicality for the first half, and gives a highly credible portrayal of a desolate father in the second. It is a credit to Gogarty that he is able to bring out this change in presentation with the subtlety required to make the change organic.

There were occasionally moments that lacked polish – the scene in which Marianne declares her love for Alfred (James Nelson-Joyce) felt a little forced. However, apart from this one scene, Jarret-Gavin and Nelson-Joyce worked well together, and the seething resentment they had for each other was utterly believable.

In general, this was a performance that was slick and well-executed, and illuminated by enough flashes of brilliance to make it well worth watching.

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