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The Misfortune of the English

by on 29 April 2022

All Things Considered

The Misfortune of the English

by Pamela Carter

Orange Tree Theatre Productions at the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond until 28th May   UK première

Review by Andrew Lawston

Three schoolboys bound on to the Orange Tree’s stage, full of vigour and exuberance.  One of them disdainfully removes a health and safety sign from the centre of the stage, and they proceed to tell the audience about their walking holiday in Germany.  Twenty-seven children and one teacher, who is clearly idolised by his pupils.

Schoolboy banter is largely timeless, and school uniforms don’t tend to change much either, so it takes a while before the truth of the trip sinks in.  The school trip is taking place in 1936, in Nazi Germany, just before Adolf Hitler’s birthday.

And as they narrate the start of their walk from Freiburg, and the first references are made to rain, storms, and sleet, it becomes clear that this is not the carefree stroll in the woods that the boys are anticipating.

The clear leader of the three schoolboys is Harrison, a preppy fourteen year old whose buttoned blazer and neat side parting suggests a stiff upper lip and conformity.  Despite Harrison’s bravado, Hubert Burton makes him a sympathetic figure, vulnerable and constantly concerned for his friends.

With tousled hair and his shirt hanging out, Eaton is the rebel of the group.  Played with long-limbed gusto by Vinnie Heaven, Eaton nonetheless idolises and defers to the older sixth-form boys, while Harrison attempts to emulate them.

Matthew Tennyson plays Lyons, the third and most obviously vulnerable of the boys.  He has Harrison’s side parting, but Eaton’s untucked shirt, and is dressed in short trousers despite only being a few weeks younger than the other two.  He clearly worships both of the older boys, which makes it even sadder that Lyons is often treated as the outsider of the group.  This isolation takes on sinister overtones when his Jewish heritage is revealed during an argument among the group.

Pamela Carter’s play dramatises a real tragedy from 1936, when a school party led by schoolmaster Kenneth Keast walked into the Black Forest only to lose themselves in a snowstorm on the Schauinsland mountain.

Several of the boys died as a result of their ordeal, but the survivors found themselves used as political pawns.  Local Hitler Youth brigades were credited with their rescue, and they joined the parades to celebrate Hitler’s birthday.  In Carter’s play, these Hitler Youth boys seem aloof and indifferent to the schoolboys as they set out on their ill-fated expedition, even when Eaton jeers at them over Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

War is everywhere in the play.  The references to life in Nazi Germany appearing relatively normal “all things considered” suggest that the boys are anticipating war.  They proudly tell us that The Strand School was set up to train boys to administer and run the British Empire.  That they gather to celebrate and remember the dead of the First World War.  After the weather turns, a snowball fight turns into a slow-motion mock gun battle.  The aggression that runs beneath the surface of this hiking trip is palpable throughout the play.

From the bare stage of the play’s opening, the deteriorating weather is conjured simply but effectively through lighting effects, sound, and through clouds of dry ice until at times the actors are almost lost in the fog.  Director Oscar Toeman uses all the resources at his disposal to conjure the Black Forest on an empty set.

And as the situation becomes truly desperate and the storm closes in, Eva Magyar’s strident Tour Guide finally appears in person in a glorious climactic interlude, to lecture the boys and the audience on geography.

The Misfortune of the English is a play that contains much food for thought, and feels very timely.  We are told about the aloof, arrogant Hitler Youth members, but it is three British boys who are wearing uniforms and marching around the stage.  And it’s three British boys who are constantly reminding us that in 1936 Britain was an imperial power, and that “London is the capital of the world”, as Eaton puts it helpfully.  It’s a British schoolboy who interrogates Lyons about his Jewish heritage, and at one point the boys listen to political insults (including some very modern examples) spewing from a radio.

This is an exciting production of a new play that mines our recent history to examine our present.  It is sometimes moving, sometimes troubling, often very funny, and always highly entertaining.

Andrew Lawston, April 2022

Photography by Ellie Kurttz

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