What a great title for a Paul O’Grady bio-drama! The idea seems to be endorsed by an early performance by a drag act, but the real subject matter of this production is one that merits being treated with a great deal more gravitas and the question that hovers throughout is whether such gravitas is ever given.
The true facts behind the play are: Dr Carl Værnet was born in Denmark in 1893, became a general practitioner in Copenhagen where he worked on developing hormonal treatments to “cure” homosexuality, worked there for the Nazis during German occupation, experimented further on inmates at Buchenwald concentration camp near Prague and died at a ripe old age exiled in Argentina. That chilling synopsis would seem to be the cue for a harrowing two hours of misery and suffering, something like Martin Sherman’s Bent. The reality is very different.
The writer/director is Claudio Macor, whose previous work seen in London includes The Tailor-Made Man and In the Dead of Night, both tales of forbidden love with a 1930s/40s setting. His obvious devotion to classic cinema makes it no surprise that he follows the path of another account of Nazi persecution – Casablanca – by taking a bitter, nasty pill and coating it thickly with romance and intrigue.
Almost every scene sits on the edge of a precipice, at the bottom of which lies risible camp farce and it is little short of miraculous that Macor stops the whole production from toppling. Perhaps the key lies in everyone playing it straight (meaning serious). There is some irony, but barely a hint of humour in the script and the entire company performs it with the passion and intensity that they might give to, say, Sherman. This really is a curious piece of cinema-influenced retro theatre.
Starting in 1940, the main plot relates to Nikolai (Alexander Huetson), a Danish art gallery worker who is in a relationship with US Embassy attaché Zach (Nic Kyle). Nikolai is hauled off for treatment by Værnet (Gary Fannin) and Zach is recalled back home as America prepares to enter the War. A less credible sub-plot has club entertainer Georg (Lee Knight) forced into a master/slave relationship with the German Obergruppenführer (Bradley Clarkson). Emily Lynne as Værnet’s nurse brings calm and compassion to the goings on.
If much of this is truly dreadful, then why is it also so enjoyable? The answer could arise from Macor’s gift for taking glaring flaws – clunky dialogue, over-plotting, cliché characters like the German General and the mad doctor – and mixing them with other ingredients to make a cocktail that is irresistible and intoxicating. It becomes a guilty pleasure, like blubbing through a black-and-white Joan Crawford weepy or a Douglas Sirk melodrama (the comparisons are cinematic as surely Macor would want). You know that you ought to be hating it all, but somehow you cannot resist being swept away by it.
Macor slips in well-worn gay pride mantras that amount to preaching to the long- converted, but his play does not wield enough power to speak to countries in the World that may still adhere to Værnet’s warped beliefs. Its most likely impact will be to give a big boost to sales of Kleenex in nearby Old Compton Street.
Performance date: 1 July 2016
Images: Roy Tan