Gabriel – May 2017

Experience: 6/10

By Moira Buffini

Directed by Kate McGregor

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: 19th May 2017

It’s a good job Steve and I had already seen other plays by Moira Buffini which we enjoyed – if we had seen this one first we might not have booked for some of the others. Her inexperience shows in this, the first of her plays, through the underwritten characters, weak story and rather tepid ending. Some strong performances helped, as did some good humour, but the second half still dragged. Even making allowances for the fact that I was very tired after a hard week’s playgoing, I wouldn’t willingly watch this piece again. Steve got more out of this performance than I did, but not enough to raise the overall rating.

For once I read the programme before the start, so the set was no surprise. The designer had tried to incorporate three levels – basement, ground floor, attic – into the one design, to bring out a sense of the heaven, earth, hell symbolism of the play. However, as no one used the basement level, the net result was a raised floor which meant that those of us in the front few rows were having to look up all the time, something we’re used to at other theatres but not at Guildford. The floor of the set was on a slight slant, fortunately not enough to make me nauseous, and underneath were some wooden pillars and glossy black screening.

A couple of feet above this was the ground floor of the set, with planks for walls, a back door and two windows, plus the cooker, sink, cupboards etc. appropriate for a 1943 Guernsey farmhouse. Two ceiling lights were supplemented with candles, but at least the lighting wasn’t gloomy, and despite our unusual viewing angle, we saw everything perfectly well.

The ‘attic’ was another raised area to the right, with cam ceilings, a window and a bed. They took enough time between leaving the main room and entering the attic, which helped to give the sense of distance between them, and while I would have preferred a less heavily symbolic design, it wasn’t a major problem. The backcloth showed scudding clouds, and the main sound effect was that low-pitched rumbling, which could have been waves, stormy weather or even artillery on the French beaches. (I know that wouldn’t be happening in 1943, the period of the play, but these creatives clearly like to work such symbols into their productions, so I assume that thought was in their minds.)

The story was pretty simple. Four women, representing different strata of Channel Island society, hide a young man who was found, half dead, on the beach by one of them. When he wakes up, he doesn’t remember who he is, but can speak both English and German fluently. There are various suggestions for his provenance: a British airman shot down the night before he was found, a German SS officer whose boat was sunk off the coast that same night, a young Guernsey man who had been working for the Germans as an interpreter, or an angel. This last was the conviction of young Estelle, whose prayer within her ‘power square’ appeared, to her at least, to have conjured up the young man to save them all by driving the Germans off the island.

That a girl of her age – fifteen – could have retained such delusional notions after several years of German occupation gives a fair indication of how far-fetched the story was. It began well, with the former lady of the manor type, Jeanne Becquet, now evicted from her posh home, having to resort to black marketeering to make ends meet. But many of the  strands introduced at the start merely fizzled out, as if the writer wanted to include a lot of the information she’d learned during her research, but didn’t know how to integrate it into the plot. As a result, there was little tension or sense of jeopardy, despite various characters telling us how dangerous this or that activity was. Even knowing that Lily, Jeanne’s daughter-in-law, was Jewish, didn’t invoke any deeper sense of engagement for me.

I mentioned that there were some strong performances tonight, and for me the best of the lot was Paul McGann’s von Pfunz, the new commandant of the local garrison. Having mislead Jeanne into believing he spoke no English, he revelled in her acerbic tongue and tolerated her insults, resulting in her incautious revelation of Lily’s true religious affiliation. Although he still lacked real menace, his performance was a combination of smarmy and disgusting which was a good fit for this particular play. The hints of something deeper, connected with his time in the concentration camps and expressed through his poetry, were again not developed as much as I would have liked.

Robin Morrissey’s Gabriel was fine, but given the nature of the part there wasn’t a lot to hang his characterisation on, and Jules Melvin was excellent as the crotchety Mrs Lake, helper in the black market trading and stalwart disapprover of anything out of the ordinary. Venice van Somerson was good as Estelle, but that character didn’t ring true for me, and trying to suggest a low-grade level of resistance to the occupation through a tantrum-throwing child was ineffective at the very least.

Finally, there was Belinda Lang as Jeanne Becquet herself. We’ve enjoyed many of her performances, particularly in Noel Coward plays where her cut-glass accent and comic timing can be put to good use. This role, however, required something grittier, and I felt this portrayal was too superficial to flesh out the bare bones of the writing. Still, she delivered the humour very well, and that redeemed a lot.

The audience was much larger than last week, thankfully, and most people seemed to enjoy the evening, with a good level of response throughout the performance. Not the best ending to our week, but that’s life.

© 2017 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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