It seems extraordinary to think of it now, but according to files released by MI5 in 2010, Lord Baden Powell (1857-1941), who founded the Scout movement, held talks with German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946) and the Hitler Youth leader Hartmann Lauterbacher (1909-1988) in 1937, such was Baden Powell’s fondness of the Fuhrer. There is no evidence that Lord Baden Powell met Hitler himself, although Hitler Youth leaders were invited to Boy Scout camps in England prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Naturally, as The Good Scout points out, it was difficult to persuade impressionable schoolboys that their German counterparts (if that’s the right word) were, in a word, spies for the Third Reich.
But when Will Parrish (Daniel Cornish) and Jacob Collier (Charlie Mackay) host Gerhard Kleeman (Clemente Lohr) and Friedrich Dorf (Simon Stache), the German guests take photos of landmarks and major road junctions, including an RAF base. Gerhard, unfortunately for him, couldn’t keep his mouth shut during a British Pathé newsreel in a local cinema, and (spoiler alert) performing the Nazi salute resulted in all four of them being thrown out of a screening. Word gets around, precipitating a visit from John Dory (Lewis Allcock), who is circumspect about what he does and who for but claims he is a friend of Will’s uncle. Will’s mother Rose (Amanda Bailey) may not always be the most tactful, but her doting nature is recognised by all the boys.
For a show that doesn’t proceed at a breakneck pace, there’s a surprising amount of ground covered in this single act play. One (sort of) knows what to expect when coming to see a show at Above The Stag Theatre: I’ve yet to see a production there that doesn’t very explicitly and openly champion gay relationships, strictly ‘verboten’ in Germany at the time but, this being England, the bedroom activity happens soon enough. It’s tastefully done, though, and while some shows like to go for being borderline pornographic, this one makes clear what is going on with Will and Jacob have their own hideaway spot, and Friedrich’s question hardly needs translating: “Was ist ein ‘den’?”
There are enough plot twists such that eventually it isn’t clear whether anyone can truly be trusted, and the lads are forced to grow up rather quicker than would have been ideal. The production has a way of sending up political figures (and why not?) – a conference in 1938 that led to the Munich Agreement (or, as it is known in some quarters, the Munich Betrayal) agreed by Germany, the UK, France and Italy puts neither Hitler nor Neville Chamberlain in a positive light.
Perhaps inevitably, tragedy befalls some of its characters – though Will, ever the good Scout of the play’s title, was classed as a ‘conscientious objector’. Grappling with such personal and moral issues as well as conflicting priorities couldn’t have been easy for these youngsters – Gerhard seems to have a particularly arduous proverbial tightrope to walk, torn between his responsibilities in the Hitler Youth, the actual beliefs of his parents (tantamount to the original meaning of being ‘politically incorrect’) and what may or may not be considered fraternising with the enemy.
Events, whether on a personal level or on the international political stage, are sometimes amusing with the benefit of hindsight, and if that adds to the enjoyment of what would otherwise be an ever-increasingly fraught and depressing narrative, that is no bad thing. Those who think that life was a simpler affair for previous generations may well think again after seeing this engaging and enriching production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Inspired by true events: a story of espionage, Scout’s honour and forbidden love.
In the 1930s, Baden-Powell and Von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador, decreed that British boy scouts and Hitler Youth should learn from one another.
In Bassington, England, the local troop play host to a cycling party of Hitlerjugend – but are the German boys cyclists or “spyclists”? For Will and Jacob, two Rover Scouts on the cusp of manhood, it is a visit that will change their lives forever.
The Good Scout
by Glenn Chandler
Presented by Boys of the Empire Productions
9 October – 2 November 2019
Above The Stag
Theatre, Arch 72, Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TP