A German Life @ Bridge Theatre

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In a concentrated performance that would tax the stamina of the youngest performer (much less an octogenarian national treasure), Dame Maggie Smith serves a masterclass of technique and straightforward charisma. In a 100-minute continuous monologue, each stammer, hesitation and ruminative halt precisely placed, Smith sifts through the troubled memories of Brunhilde Pomsel, ordinary German citizen who rose from humble beginnings through to having a (literal, at one stage) seat at the heart of the Nazi regime when she is assigned as secretary to Joseph Goebbels. While insisting she had no greater knowledge of the catastrophe unfolding around her, Smith reveals the fine fractures of consciousness-if Pomsel is guilty of any sort of collaboration, it was in youthfully genuflecting to a particular glamour, thrill and financial reward of being in the presence of powerfully influential figures, all too easy to engage in a wilfull disregard of the more unsavoury aspects surrounding her service.

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As she continues to justify and rationalise and draw the audience into her confession, imperceptibly the stage moves closer to the crowd, the modest furnishings of her retirement flat receding, Pomsel increasingly caught in a tight, dimming light, possibly damned (as she denounces the diminishments of mortality, for a moment it is impossible to separate performer from character), or at least psychologically trapped (especially in her inescapable betrayals of a Jewish friend from youth and a former employer who treated her well). Arguments collapse into outright evasions. Pointedly, Pomsel mentions with the accumulated and well-documented tragedies of history, such events would be unable to occur today in such scale or fury, a statement which was met with appalled laughter, a recognition that indeed they still ensue, despite a well-informed global culture.

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Pomsel never moves from her armchair, but Smith keeps us mesmerised throughout, reminding us that sometimes “just doing my job” has tremendous moral consequences. A German Life continues through 11 May-the run is entirely sold-out, but day return tickets are available daily

A German Life

The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens @ Unicorn Theatre

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This absurdist hour-long piece conceptualised for children would improbably earn the respect of such existential luminaries as Beckett and Sartre, who would no doubt appreciate its playfully gentle but frank investigations into spiritual, physical and temporal anxieties, the exhaustive, bewildered search for meaning in a swell of nothingness, the alarm that even information may not sufficiently provide answer. An officious, glowering black-suited security guard closes up the stage, informing the audience that nothing will be happening, walking off, daringly leaving the stage silent for a suspended time until a performer eventually attempts to open the locked door, ready to begin his act. His efforts to access the stage become increasingly desperate, motivating the security guard to return to address the disruption, setting into play an antagonistic, ultimately co-operative relationship.

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Conceptually complex philosophies are rampant, dressed up as frantic fun, kids responding on a primal level (the creators generously assume that kids can grapple intellectually with issues without resorting to the pedantic). Stating the impossibility of nothing happening, when there exists a constant possibility of something happening, is the key narrative drive-as the characters get enmeshed in personal, looped agonies of defeat, grief, pity, fear, impatience (lamenting “dead” moments, flailing around waiting for the “next” moment) , the children in the seats encouragingly shout out suggestions and advice, admonishing them to simply get on with it. Unlike the characters on stage, who search for some sense of linearity or purpose, kids are uniquely qualified to see the world as a collection of simultaneously exciting, wicked, revealing, nonsensical moments, a march of stimulating, stupefying ephemera, that seemingly inconsequential actions can have their own mad design. Nigel Barrett is deadpan ominous perfection as the security guard, and Riad L Richie is just the right side of floridly ripe as the serious “artiste”.

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The kids at the performance I attended were vividly engaged, and the final release of the “happenings” across the stage, so long heaving against the door, was a liberation, an assurance that one may contend with a multitudinous onslaught, break it down into a series of smaller concerns. The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens continues through 28 April at Unicorn Theatre

Little Miss Sunshine @ Arcola Theatre

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How to reconcile the traditional musical’s need for the effervescent, its insistence on the upbeat (we are not in Sondheim territory here) with the scabrous candour of the acclaimed indie film on which this property is based? By locating and isolating the sweet and sentimental heart that always lay at the centre of the original material, and softening, but not altogether excising, the mordant aspects of character and situation. The main focus is a harried and last-minute family road trip to deliver aspiring daughter Olive to a beauty pageant, a go-for-broke journey around which a battery of personal strife spirals-debt, depression, attempted suicide, sickness, marital discord, dying dreams-all of which are referenced, if not profoundly explored, in this fast-paced, efficient production.

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Stage floor and walls are plastered in a road-atlas pattern, signalling the significance of the voyage in the family’s destiny- a few screens and neon signs are effectively placed on a tight stage to suggest stops along the way, the car a series of chairs upon a trolly that folds in and out of the action. After the character set-up of the first half (in which nearly every family member is granted a brief moment to define him/herself), the second act barrels along on a macabre whimsy that culminates in the comedic frenzy and melodrama of the pageant, situations progressively more and more unhinged while inversely bringing the family closer together.

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Laura Pitt-Pulford, possessing the strongest voice on stage, is the most astutely effective in reaching into the depths of her character’s anguish; Gary Wilmot  is bracingly ribald as unregenerate grandpa; and Imelda Warren-Green is a comic force in two small roles, milking every last humourous ounce out of a constipated hospital bureaucrat and a diva-ish former pageant winner, now over-the-top presenter. The production is certainly colourful, charismatic and full of entertainingly disheveled life, but oftentimes to the detriment of full emotional immersion in the family’s many crises and heartbreaks. Little Miss Sunshine continues through 11 May

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