It’s a curious thing to watch a play featuring characters far older than you, discussing things that are difficult to identify with. Perhaps this is why Judith Burnley employs much verbose description in Anything That Flies, her debut play, premiering at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre this autumn. Burnley’s career as an author of fiction also perhaps explains the lengthy exposition that arises between our characters, not so much to speak to one another but to describe to the audience the horrors of Nazi Germany, and how it literally ripped families apart.
Our characters are Otto (Clive Merrison), living in his immaculately detailed flat in Belsize Park in 1991. Recovering from a stroke, Otto, a one-time musician and heir to the Huberman audio dynasty, spends his days listening to Brahms, and avoiding the outside world – especially the terrifying ‘man in the hall’. Lottie’s (Issy van Randwyck) unexpected appearance unsettles Jewish Otto, who fears her German aristocratic roots, despite Lottie’s insistence that she has been sent by Otto’s daughter (who lives in Israel) to look after him. It is difficult to believe Otto would have no knowledge of this – yet his memory is clearly deteriorating, and he is often disoriented – so we may suspend our disbelief here momentarily.
What follows is a constant haggle between the characters as to who, if anyone, has the monopoly on suffering as a result of WWII. The mistrust that Otto harbours for any non-Jewish German is palpable, and almost as irritating as Lottie’s obsession with – and frequent quoting of – Winnie the Pooh. Perhaps this is what I mean by the discussion of difficult topics that are hard to get on board with. Nazi Germany, the treatment of Jewish people, and the aftermath of this most horrific time period must be remembered and inspected, to honour those that suffered (and continue to suffer), and to prevent the same atrocity from happening again. Which is perhaps why I felt uneasy for finding certain elements within the play somewhat annoying – the repetition of Winnie the Pooh by a fully grown woman being just one of them. I understood why it meant so much to her as a child – the English dream, in a war-torn Nazi Germany – yet it still grated, and inevitably the fault must lie within the writing.
Having said that, there is much to commend the play. Many of the descriptions of the past are simply beautiful, and the stomach-dropping rawness of emotion that both actors convey is moving and perfectly pitched. The lived experience of Otto in the present is captured beautifully by Merrison, throwing up universal themes of elderly loneliness and pride, and the inherent sadness and confusion caused by possessing no particular patriotic identity. The fleeting moments when Otto is not cantankerous or lecherous, allow him and Lottie to truly connect, and the
result is delicious. Alice Hamilton has clearly found these nuggets of beauty in the text and, in her careful direction, helps the audience see that these characters have an internal conflict that goes far beyond description. These moments of silence and stillness speak far more to an audience than detailed exposition and ironically are the reason I am anticipating greater things from Judith Burnley in future.
Review by Amy Stow
Directed by Alice Hamilton
Lighting Design by Elliot Griggs
Set and Costume Design by Neil Irish and Emily Adamson
Music and Sound Design by Max Pappenheim
“I hate Christopher Robin. He’s everything I loathe about England. Sentimental. Sanctimonious. Above all, false. Childhood was never like that.”
The Berlin Wall has fallen. Reparations are being made to Jewish families. Germany has reunited. And in Belsize Park, Otto Huberman is listening to recordings of himself playing Brahms, when he is interrupted by a visitor who will turn his life upside down.
Jermyn Street Theatre
The ESCAPE Season
ANYTHING THAT FLIES
By Judith Burnley
A World premiere
Wed, 18th October – Sat, 11th November