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Astoria at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

A feeling of inevitability came over me once it became clear the show was set in pre-Anschluss Austria: this wasn’t going to end well, I thought, and not every character alive now is going to be alive by curtain call. But while the play travels down a well-trodden theatrical path that goes at least as far back as the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, it tells a true story, that of Jura Soyfer (1912-1939) (Joshua Ginsberg), a journalist and writer of cabaret shows. The play’s conclusion, without giving too much away, is bittersweet – with stand-and-deliver descriptions of what happened to Soyfer as well as other characters in the show. What went on at Buchenwald concentration camp is spoken about rather than dramatized – fair enough.

Astoria Cast

The infamous sign at the entrance to Auschwitz, reading ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (translated, ‘Work sets you free’), had an identical one at the gates to Dachau, where Soyfer was sent in 1938, and where he met Herbert Zipper, who went on to conduct the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra. Together, they wrote ‘Dachaulied’ – that is, ‘The Dachau Song’, a satirical take on ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’. Before all of that, however, the action focuses on a venue called The Cabaret ABC, where Soyfer’s shows – as well as those of others – were put on. A popular venue in Vienna at the time, the shows were largely explicitly political in nature, as opposed to the lighter-hearted escapist entertainment on hand elsewhere.

It’s not difficult to see the parallels the production attempts to make – without, I hasten to add, being preachy about it – between then and now. In the fantastical world Soyfer creates through his cabaret show Astoria (the name is apparently a satirical take in itself on the word ‘Austria’), outlandish claims about full employment and zero sickness (amongst other things) in Astoria are coupled with ever-changing immigration rules in which the bar is raised ever higher in order to maintain zero migration. Martin Miller (Benjamin Chandler) protests after yet another false declaration from the Astorian government, and ends up frustrated that people are, by and large, simply willing to go along with convenient lies rather than ask questions about what’s really going on.

There’s a sprightly optimism that permeates the show, even if some of it is deliberately misplaced, directed as it is towards the wonder of the utopian Astoria. The implications and applications in modern society are almost infinite – from being duped by cowboy builders to falling victim to a phishing scam, the ability to deceive intelligent and sophisticated people is powerfully demonstrated.

It is, thanks to the cabaret setting, comfortable and pleasurable viewing, and yet it is also distinctly uncomfortable, if only because everyone knows what lies ahead. Some witty and perceptive lyrics are performed, largely by Jimmy Berg (Sam Denia), and the songs also provide excellent actor-musicianship. In speaking truth to power, the powers that be retaliate disproportionately, and I couldn’t help but think of recent proposals to curtail rights to protest and take industrial action – we do not seem to be that far off from repeating some of the mistakes of the past.

The scene changes are slick and the set design (Sorcha Corcoran) does well to make various locations clear. Thoughtful and entertaining in equal measure, this isn’t yet another World War Two saga, but a gritty and remarkably relevant story for our times.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Vienna, 1937. Germany is poised to annex Austria, social democracy has been all but obliterated and the country is lurching ever further to the right.

In the tiny ABC Theatre, the most politically noisy of the Kleinkunstbühnen – the “little theatres” of Vienna – a young communist Jewish playwright, Jura Soyfer, is a rising star. But he is increasingly in danger for lampooning the establishment with his blackly comedic plays such as Astoria, which brilliantly skewers the populism that shatters so many dreams.

Using material from Soyfer’s original, this new Astoria tells the story of a group of actors and writers who take huge risks to make theatre that entertains, engages and asks big questions. Come and join us at the ABC and meet them and their friend Jura, this extraordinary young man whose work resonates as loudly now as it did then.

Original play by Jura Soyfer, translated by Horst Jarka

Creative Team: Director: Tony Britten Music by Jimmy Berg, Tony Britten, Herbert Zipper Lyrics by Jura Soyfer, translated by Tony Britten Set Designer: Sorcha Corcoran Costume Designer: Alice Carroll Lighting Designer: Stuart Glover Sound Designer: Alex Turner Produced by Music Theatre London

Olivia Benjamin, Benjamin Chandler, Taylor Danson Sam Denia, Joshua Ginsberg

Tuesday 28 March – Saturday 15 April 7.30pm


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