The Misfortune of the English (Orange Tree Theatre)

Posted: April 29, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Rjjie Kurttz

Writer: Pamela Carter:

Director: Oscar Toeman

⭐️⭐️⭐️

In the Spring of 1936, King Edward VIII sat on the British throne, Nazis were on the ascendancy in Germany and a group of 27 English schoolboys set out on an ill-fated trek through the Black Forest. Inspired by true events, Pamela Carter’s 95-minute drama recounts the boys’ misfortunes and interrogates the peculiar condition of being English.

The boys, from The Strand School in London, describe themselves as “lower middle class”. Class remains the key to everything in their homeland. Their story is told from the perspective of just three of them, all in their early teens and appearing in their maroon school blazers: Harrison (Hubert Burton) embodies the bulldog spirit; Lyons (Matthew Tennyson) strives to not be the outsider, guiltily denying his Jewish heritage; and Eaton (Vinnie Heaven) comments irreverently on all around him, his every word dripping with irony.

After spending a night at the Adolf Hitler Youth Hostel, the party begins its journey on foot to the next destination, led by a novice teacher (not seen). A late Winter blizzard is on its way. There is an easy route and a difficult route crossing a mountain, so, unanimously, they choose the latter. Being English, the writer asks, would they have any other option? Carter chips away at the quirks and foibles that join together to make a nation’s psyche and makes us wonder whether they add up to insanity or the attributes that win wars.

Director Oscar Toeman’s highly animated in-the-round production is played out on a bare stage, with the house lights up for much of the time. The three boys, always trying to maintain stiff upper lips, play tapes of familiar voices on a machine that would be invented decades later and huddle together to sing I’ll Stand By You in a moving scene that is also remarkable, considering that none of the song’s writers had been born in 1936. Period detail is not the production’s strength and Carter occasionally has a tendency to wander off course as easily as the schoolboys, seeming to overlook that her play’s suspenseful main narrative is more involving than her underlying thesis. Fortunately, three lively and captivating performances provide compensation for other shortcomings.

Towards the end, when the play is already walking on tires legs, a German tour guide (Eva Magyar) emerges to deliver a sort of epilogue, which has all the subtlety of a school History lecture. It provides an untidy climax to an intriguing, if not entirely satisfying, piece of theatre.

Performance date: 28 April 2022

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