Gabriel at The Liverpool Playhouse

Posted on 5 April 2017
By Chris High
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Moira Buffini’s look at life on occupied Guernsey during 1943, Gabriel, is curious hotchpotch of the startlingly stereotypical and dazzlingly revelatory; a stew of bleak, gallows humour and frank portrayal; an exhibition of war’s banality and war’s all invasive power to appal. In short, it is difficult to assess exactly what it is.

Indeed despite a fine cast and some robust performances, the major fault with proceedings is the piece’s pace and reliance on almost Carry On caricatures that border on the two-dimensional way too often, thereby failing to provide depth, understanding and – frankly – any semblance of empathy for those being subjugated.

Paul McGann makes his return to The Playhouse stage amidst much fanfare and his portrayal of the truth obsessed Nazi Major von Pfunz occasionally crackles with authority. Yet at other more frequent times his playing the ‘allo ‘allo nasty German officer – oh, and the comedy spectacles – undermines what could be otherwise said to be a poignantly conflicted man bent on recording his innermost thoughts on the barbarity with which he is surrounded through poetry.

On sparkling, black witted form is Belinda Lang as the widow Jeanne Becquet, whose young minx of a daughter, Jewish daughter-in-law and dyed in the wool housekeeper are minor encumbrances when compared to the fateful night Gabriel – a German speaking supposed pilot – drops in to stay. Becquet is acerbic, stoic and desperately lonely and Lang delivers on all counts for the most part. Yet, once again, her occasional meanderings down Stereotype Alley tend to weaken her role.

Venice van Someren as the young mischief maker Estelle delivers a typically brattish performance that comes straight out of the Bonnie Langford school of Violet Elizabeth Bott, whereas Sarah Schoenbeck’s Lily – whose life is quite literally placed on the line once von Pfunz makes his appearance – lacks a certain edge.

Robin Morrissey in the title role of Gabriel comes across more confused than amnesiac at times.Once again however at others his is the stand out performance. With Jules Melvin trying desperately to hold the family together, whilst still maintaining a steady line in not so subtle black marketeering the point of credibility is stretched somewhat, particularly as von Pfunz’s predecessor has been supposedly shipped off to the Eastern front for turning a blind eye to such shenanigans.

So much more could have been made of the circumstances surround the sum of the whole. The Nazis built four camps on Alderney and commenced operating in January 1942. The four camps on the Island had a total inmate population – made of mostly European and Russian inmates, but also some neutral Spanish labourers too – that fluctuated at about 6,000, with more than 700 camp inmates losing their lives in harsh, starvation rationed conditions before the camps were closed and the remaining inmates transferred to France in 1944.

Now if there isn’t a story in that – particularly as The Channel Islands were the only part of Britain to be occupied – then there isn’t a story to be had anywhere. Instead we have the tale of war torn Britain lions that, in this telling, seem sadly to have had most of their teeth extracted.

The Liverpool Playhouse
April 4 – April 8, 2017
Author: Moira Buffini
Director: Kate McGregor
Cast: Paul McGann, Belinda Lang, Jules Melvin, Robin Morrisey, Sarah Schoenbeck, Venice van Someren
Running Time: 2 hrs 20 mins
PR Rating: ***

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