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The Misfortune of the English at the Orange Tree Theatre

Every generation has stories broadly like the one in The Misfortune of the English (alas, nothing to do with the men’s national football team): deaths in the great outdoors during adverse weather conditions. Whether it is heavy storms at sea, a road traffic collision in poor visibility, or being caught in a tornado, lives are unintentionally lost. These days, personal injury lawyers will be straight on the case – let’s just say they have a very different definition of the word ‘accident’ than I do.

Vinnie Heaven, Matthew Tennyson and Hubert Burton. Image: Ellie Kurttz
Vinnie Heaven, Matthew Tennyson and Hubert Burton. Image: Ellie Kurttz.

The show begins slightly unexpectedly: the actors begin their dialogue with the house lights still up, and it is some time before they come down. The jollity and camaraderie between Harrison (Hubert Burton), Eaton (Vinnie Heaven) and Lyons (Matthew Tennyson) is such that, even without knowing anything of the ‘English Calamity’ on the Schauinsland mountain in Germany in 1936 before seeing the show, it was clear that the good times weren’t going to last.

But this isn’t yet another foreboding story about the rise of the Third Reich, and while there was at least one notable instance of someone yelling slowly and loudly in English in some absurd attempt to get the locals to understand what they were saying, for the most part the schoolboys seemed sufficiently drilled in having learnt some conversational German. The locals, for their part, were friendly and helpful, and one of the photographs included in the show’s programme is captioned, “Members of the Hitler Youth stand over the coffins of the schoolboys who died in 1936”. Revulsion was my own initial reaction, though there is nothing in the photo to suggest they were doing anything disrespectful or unworthy. (The Nazis did use the tragedy for their own propaganda purposes, but that is another story for another time.) As far as the play goes, Lyons encounters anti-Semitism not from anyone in Germany, but from a fellow pupil, which gives the audience something to think about – not everything is as it seems.

There are some public schoolboy quirks – the boys do not say ‘yes’ or ‘here’ when the register is being taken, but rather ‘adsum’: Latin, they reliably inform the audience, for ‘I am present’. The Strand School, originally located on the Strand before outgrowing their premises and relocating to Tulse Hill in south London, was a grammar school that gave boys from the lower middle classes opportunities to climb up the social ladder, or at least certain pupils had reason to believe this was the overarching aim. The trio only leave the stage for a solitary scene, given over to The Tour Guide (Éva Magyar), whose commentary stretches beyond the topics that a tour guide would reasonably be expected to cover, though her observations were interesting to listen to, nonetheless.

The final scenes give details of what happened after April 1936 as though they were events still to come. It is, I suppose, a welcome divergence from the usual perspective of reflecting on actions and events after they have occurred. But the play appears, on one level, to have overstretched itself in terms of thinking outside the box, for if The Tour Guide can predict with pinpoint accuracy what would happen “in two years”, what else could she have predicted? It becomes evident, however, that the teacher in charge, Kenneth Keast, known as ‘Keaty’ to his pupils, had pressed on taking twenty-seven pupils through a blizzard, with some, such as Lyons, dressed in shorts. A soothsayer tour guide would hardly have convinced Keaty to turn back.

There is little in the way of set, with the schoolboys providing an engaging narrative through storytelling, until the appearance of a highly detailed scale model of the local area, complete with villages, significant landmarks and farm animals. It’s an impressive achievement. All things considered, this briskly-paced story supplies its audiences with a surprisingly balanced account of a key event in interwar history.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

“Guten Tag meine Herren und Frauen von Freiburg, von Deutschland. We have travelled here from London, England. You may have heard of it.”

On the morning of 17 April 1936, a group of 27 schoolboys, led by their teacher and newly arrived in Nazi Germany, set out on the first of a seven-day walking tour of the Black Forest.

By 8pm that evening, local villagers were searching for them in a blizzard.

“You did say you wanted to take the scenic route.”

Inspired by true events: a story of (mis)adventure and blind optimism, nationhood, and courage in the face of disaster.

Oscar Toeman directs Hubert Burton (Harrison), Vinnie Heaven (Eaton), Eva Magyar (Tour Guide), and Matthew Tennyson (Lyons).

The UK première of Pamela Carter’s
The Misfortune of the English
Directed by Oscar Toeman

The Orange Tree Theatre
1 Clarence Street, Richmond, TW9 2SA
25 April 2022 – 28 May 2022

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