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The Secret Letters of Gertie & Hen by Imogen Hunter | Review

The Secret Letters of Gertie & Hen
The Secret Letters of Gertie & Hen

For a production in a studio space, the set is quite impressive – two-tiered, such that it is possible to depict life before and during the Second World War in both Germany and England at the same time. It is perhaps too picky to say that there was little to distinguish the two properties – both had furnishings, both had a wireless, and both families were in suitably period costumes. But I suspect this production of The Secret Letters of Gertie & Hen were suggesting by way of portraying so much similarity that whatever the political situation at any given time, different people in different countries are going through, broadly speaking, more or less the same challenges and frustrations that life throws at them.

It’s a curious title – there are plenty of letters that appear during the show, and as a fellow audience member remarked before the lights went down, they can’t be that ‘secret’ if they are being made part of a play. It is, as it turns out, some time before even one of the letters is written, but there’s no faulting the character development. Perhaps something was missed in not introducing members of Gertie Braun (Sophie Greenham) and Hen Green’s (Christie Silvester) respective immediate families through the letters.

What is offered here is something unusual – a depiction of home life for those left behind whilst callups on both sides take place and families are separated by a combination of men going out to the frontline and ‘Operation Pied Piper’, the relocation of people, particularly children, from urban to rural areas. Raymond (Jason Plessas), Hen’s father (Hen, for anyone who happens to be curious, is a shortened form of Hannah) knows it is for the best, but his wife Jenny (Natasha Stiven) remains unconvinced. She didn’t say it in so many words, but she might as well have yelled something about the Government taking away her babies.

The audience gets to know Gertie’s family over in Germany equally well, though I wasn’t entirely convinced that her father Frank (Leander Vyvey) would be able to be so vocal about his opposition to Hitler, even in their own home. This becomes all the more apparent later when Gertie’s mother Maria (Maria Hildebrand) firmly tells her three daughters – the other two, besides Gertie, being Ursula (Laura Perry) and Helga (Melissa Livermore) – to keep the noise down in a later scene for fear of the neighbours snitching on them. When Helga’s boyfriend Hanz (Matthew Hawes) drops in, tensions are raised all the more because he supports the Third Reich.

There was, after the interval, the odd scene here and there about what it was like for soldiers engaged in battle, though frankly, they didn’t offer anything new, at least not to me, that hadn’t been seen before in the almost countless shows, movies and television programmes about World War Two. The play follows a trend in plays written in the last decade or so, where things tick along steadily before a critical incident appears, and drastically changes everything for the characters involved. Then again, there are fewer ‘critical incident’ moments than the radio broadcast in September 1939 when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that a state of war existed between Britain and Germany.

The ending (possible spoiler alert) cannot be described as ‘happy’ but it is, on balance, as affirmative as it plausibly could be with so much destruction sustained by both sides. It drags a little towards the end, but this is a highly emotive piece of theatre, with a living room ambience that makes the show absorbing despite covering such a well-known period of modern history.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

War-torn Balham and Berlin. Two young and naïve pen friends struggle to cope with the physical and political crossfire of World War II. Though now enemies by association, the girls struggle to forget their friendship from before the war and continue to write to one another throughout their time of need.

Imogen Hunters Harrowing play is rife with strong female characters set in a time generally contemplated from a male perspective. Immersed in strong themes of friendship, love, loss, and prejudice, The Secret Letters of Gertie & Hen provides insight from both sides of the war.

The cast includes Christie Silvester, Sophie Greenham, Maria Hildebrand, Natasha Stiven, Melissa Livermore, Laura Perry, Jason Plessas, Leander Veyvy and Matthew Hawes.
With direction by Imogen Hunter, set/ costume design & sourcing by Jen Wakeford, lighting & sound design by Heather Dunn, and music composition by Jack Hopkins.

The Secret Letters of Gertie & Hen was first previewed at the New Wimbledon Studios in April 2018 and returns with the original cast for a week-long run from 29 October – 3 November 2018.

Time and Leisure Studio, Wimbledon
The Broadway, Wimbledon, SW19 1QG
Booking to 3rd November 2018

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