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The Project by Ian Buckley at the White Bear Theatre | Review

THE PROJECT: Eloise Jones (Millie Hilmann); Cate Morris (Ette Hilmann); Faye Maughan (Anna Hilmann)Photo LEO BACICA
THE PROJECT: Eloise Jones (Millie Hilmann); Cate Morris (Ette Hilmann); Faye Maughan (Anna Hilmann) Photo Leo Bacica

The Holocaust has been a major source of material for books, films, television programmes etc. Most of these tend to concentrate on the horrors of the death camps or the ghettos. But not all of the Nazi’s victims were sent straight to these places and some were interred in transit camps such as Westerbork which is the setting for Ian Buckley’s play The Project receiving its world premiere at the White Bear Theatre.

At this camp, things are slightly better for the inmates. As well as reasonable housing – a far higher standard than in the ghettos – there is a school, hairdresser, and even restaurants for the occupants to use. Conditions may not be perfect but, under the command of SS Officer Conrad Schaffer (Mike Duran), life is bearable most of the time. It certainly is for the performers of the camp cabaret. While they have to wear the Jewish star on their clothing, at least it is their own clothes and not the striped pajamas worn in other parts of the Reich. The leader of the group is an individual called Victor Gerrin (Lloyd Morris) and he organises and hosts the cabaret nights which feature his troupe – sisters Anna (Faye Maughan) and Millie Hilmann (Eloise Jones) and singer/songwriter Peter Weiss (Nick Delvallé). Schaffer is the sole authority in the camp, everything derives from him and he is a man who is as happy watching the cabaret as he is in signing the weekly list of those camp inmates being resettled in the East. Anna and her sister have found out their hospitalised mother Ette is on the list for the next transport and, not being too convinced about the claims of a land of milk and honey, try to find a way to get her name removed. Before the war, Anna was a professional dancer and has caught the eye of the commandant so she has to decide if she should use her potential to influence Herr Schaffer and if she does, what will be the consequences for her as a person.

The Project is an interesting play in many ways. But there are some definite anomalies to the story that jarred with me. The main one being transportation to the East. Irrespective of what either side believed, the Nazi’s sold transportation to the camp inmates as a wonderful opportunity for them to move somewhere new and have a nicer life. Indeed, old Ette wanted to go on the transport to find her husband who had left earlier. But, if a prisoner absconded then their friends and families were put on the next transport as a punishment and everyone knew this. I also found some of the dialogue between the Jews and the Commandant felt slightly unreal, as if their relationship was much friendlier than the reality of their situation. Having said that, there were some very good points in the story. I found Conrad Schaffer a truly fascinating character. As with so many of the SS, Schaffer is not a brutal, idylist who follows Hitler with blind obedience. He is actually much more complicated. If he was to describe himself, he would say he was an educated civil servant doing a job for the government without fear or favour. He may not believe in it but like civil servants the world over, he implements government policy in an efficient way. Of course, he wears the uniform of the SS and uses it to his advantage – shooting an unarmed prisoner because he can and forcing his attention on Anna because he knows ultimately she cannot turn him down. Schaffer seems to enjoy the war. Total power over his little kingdom, no repercussions if he loses his temper, and providing he keeps his superiors happy, no chance of being shipped off to the Western Front. Mike Duran plays him to perfection and makes a very nasty character an urbane, intelligent man who, in other circumstances, would be a nice chap to have a drink with.

The rest of the cast did well in their roles and there were some really nice moments, particularly the songs. Interestingly, my original thought was that the opening to Act II – the cabaret performance – went on too long and was not necessary. But I actually really liked the way the normality of the performance contrasted so well with the looming threat of the transport East. As the cabaret was performed, the SS dominated in the malignant presence of the commandant sitting with us in the audience

Anthony Shrubsall’s direction was good but in places, the scene changes went on way too long, and I do feel, given the minimalist set – Designer Sarah Baker – there must have a been a more economical way to move between the scenes. One other minor criticism, whilst the costumes were on the whole very good representations of the era, I think – and I’m willing to admit I may be wrong – that the prisoners would have been wearing the Jewish star on the left hand side, over their heart.

Overall, The Project doesn’t feel quite right. The story is an interesting one but somehow the narrative doesn’t flow as a well as it should and the ending was something that I think everyone had worked out very early in the show. Ultimately, there is a lot of promise to the show, but, for me, it didn’t feel that is was fully there just yet.

3 Star Review

Review by Terry Eastham

Northern Holland, 1943. Westerbork. A bleak muddy camp in a bleak muddy landscape. Bursting at the seams with angry worried people torn from their homes and surroundings.

"AUF DER HEIDE" ("on the heath") from Humor und Melodie at Westerbork 1943
“AUF DER HEIDE” (“on the heath”) from Humor und Melodie at Westerbork 1943

And in this camp a miracle. A cabaret performed by the very best artists in Europe. A cabaret the courteous smiling camp commandant wouldn’t miss for the world. Just as he wouldn’t miss signing off the weekly transport that sends 1000 Jews to a frightening destination in the East.

A cabaret of comedy, dance and song and in particular one dancer who catches the commandant’s eye – the talented Anna Hilmann. Will she accept his invitation and dance for him? Is it a poisoned chalice or reason to hope? Will it keep her and her loved-ones off the dreaded transport list? And if it does is it a compromise worth making?

With a background based in historical fact, The Project looks at the terrible choices forced on people in a surreal world that has lost its moral compass.

RedNeedle Productions Presents
The Project
by Ian Buckley
5th March – 23rd March 2019
https://www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk

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