Gabriel Review - Oct 2019

Light plays over the darkened stage, revealing themselves as waves and throughout the whole of Britten’s ‘Dawn’ from Peter Grimes Interludes this morphs in the longest, most atmospheric introduction to a play I’ve seen anywhere.

Guernsey, 1943. A naked young man is washed up on the beach, his identity a secret, not helped by his speaking both English and German but with complete amnesia. To some in the Becquet family he’s an angel; for others devilishly hard to pin down or throw out. Moira Buffini’s 1997 play is as fresh as it was debuting in a world almost as different as the 1943 it depicts; which perhaps is nearer now.

There’s too many questions. Gabriel, the infatuated child Estelle calls him, the prayer to her squares of power we see her drawing as the play starts tenebrously. Then ‘Cockney’ daughter-in-law Lily and housekeeper Margaret Lake – who keeps them alive with black market deals – wrangle over whether it’s worth saving the man Lily finds on the beach.

Living in a hermitage, kicked out of their manor house by occupying Germans, there’s four women with now two secrets. Lyn Snowden’s aristocrat soignée widow Jeanne unthinkingly reveals the more dangerous, chattering to their new liaison officer. Dumb Major von Pfunz can only say ‘very nice’. ‘Do tell me about your wonderful name, Major,’ Snowden drawls, ‘it sounds like flatulence.’ She adds tauntingly, since he doesn’t understand a word: ‘You’re a very handsome race. Some of you anyway. And some of you look like goblins!’ She should know. She slept with his predecessor out of choice. She lets fall a devastating fact about her daughter-in-law Lily. Over-attached to her son, an RAF pilot, she confesses she dislikes his ‘Jew-wife’.

Then of course von Pfunz urbanely corrects her, later telling her Peterhouse in a Cambridge not Oxford college. This whilst shredding her Gabriel back-story. She thinks he might be an RAF pilot. Von Pfunz thinks very differently. Later still the grudging Lake has evidence – in Amanda Harman’s wonderfully curmudgeonly performance – that he’s someone else again. So she thinks.

As loyalties tauten and shift, as Estelle (in Naomi Horsfall’s keen, fresh performance) continually pushes the brinkmanship further with misplaced pluck, Jeanne has to use all her equivocal resistance, and row back from guilt too. That’s not easy. A woman who’s also boasted unwittingly that her son wasn’t her husband’s is somehow irresistible to von Pfunz. But he won’t possess her. He admires her disdain for him so much he wants love instead.

There’s a magnificent egotism too in the way Jeanne refers casual ‘three years’ to Gabriel asking about the war: she unthinkingly refers to the occupation, not the war itself, which has continued four.

There’s Jack Lynn’s fine Gabriel, a convincingly tousled performance managing to convey a genuine perplexity together with affection – he touches Lily’s wrist momentarily, and it says everything that happens. He’s particularly good at conveying Gabriel’s identity as a lit numinous thing, almost angelic, a single memory of falling a long way, but not by parachute or plane. Lynn brings the right innocence and the bewildered edge which could reveal him from the most pitch-black as well as blinding of places.

Mark Lester’s layered Nazi is a thing of repellent beauty, a compelling mix of the knowingly, intelligently brutish, just held in check, and the romantic who dreams a man who can fill a book with pose poems of horrors. A book that’s stolen and shared. But Lester’s gift for exuding the pain in the monster, the desire to be appreciated, unvarnished for who he is, a man who’s able to articulate what chaos and war release, makes him ore than a stereotype. His continual cat-and-mouse with Snowden is the core tension of the work as they paly off each other’s vulnerabilities and intimate fears. And they come to know each other intimately in a different way than you’d expect.

Chelsea Newton Mountney as Lily is another compelling performance, whether in her sullen vehemence, someone only Estelle feels close to, and then her discovery of Gabriel which shifts things for her, as well as Jeanne’s slipped words. There’s a daring and nobility in Lily that Mouney catches perfectly, though when it comes to true daring Horfalls Estelle takes the palm. Horsfall suggests a girl older than her nominal ten years, both child-like yet quickly apprehensive, alert, electric, mischievously defiant and ultimately heroic.

Directed by Gerry McCrudden, the Upstairs set (designed and built by Adam Kinciad, Simon Glazier and others) is a consummately realized farmhouse with a darker slate-coloured wall with a central door and passageway, a kitchen area stage left and stage right a red carpet and chairs. The period selection of chairs and surfaces is exemplary. Furthest stage left is a raised area where Gabriel’s bed is placed, with a door behind. Lit by Strat Mastoris – responsible for the remarkable light-show at the beginning, and various blackout effects via Max Apollo Videaux’ videography and tech, it’s operated by Alex Epps. The sound design by Alistair Lock encompasses Britten and surround storm effect, operated by Erica Fletcher. Ian Hollands and Mark Green produce authentic costumes from German uniform, to wartime handkerchief hat-fashions to cricket flannels.

This is an engrossing story, certainly, but so much more than that. It examines delusions we have of ourselves the degree to which we can lie or assume we can, and degrees of denial. The eponymous figure’s a catalyst certainly, but the impure truth – pace von Pfunz – is so much more dangerous and fascinating. Wit sovereign production values, fine pace and a flawless cast. you won’t see a better revival of this drama anywhere.

Simon Jenner
Fringe Review - 5 October 2019