Stalag Happy

Tue 8th November 2011

reviews

Rebecca Loxton

at 01:29 on 9th Nov 2011

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Stalag Happy is an award-winning play and it’s easy to see why. Set in a German prisoner of war camp at the height of one of man’s bloodiest conflicts, the script appears on the surface to be heavy, humourless fare. However, this slick slice of war-themed theatre is anything but, as the writers expertly weave wit and a dose of light-hearted comedy into the treatment of the play’s hefty subject-matter.

Produced by Third Man Theatre, Stalag Happy is both written and performed by duo Eddie Elks and Dan Frost. The play dramatises the true story of Sir Terry Frost and Adrian Heath, abstract artists who were interned in a German prisoner of war camp from 1941 until the Liberation. Dan Frost plays his grandfather, providing a neat line of continuity with the present.

The script is alternately funny and melancholy, at times deeply sad, as the characters flit from putting on comic revue shows to offering shocking insights into the daily hardships of a prisoner of war camp. The play takes a profound look at the reality of interment and the talent that can emerge from the experience of an extreme situation, without descending into mawkishness. As the blurb from the theatre company reads, ‘Stalag Happy is a real-life tale of the human spirit’s ability to find art and beauty in the most terrible and unlikely of conditions.’

The play also casts a glance at the ways in which prisoners found their own form of liberation, reverting back to their playful childhood selves and taking refuge in the world of the imagination. The characters play, joke, daydream and act out their fantasies of freedom. A train journey back to Margate, a jive on the ballroom dance floor or a leisurely wander through an art gallery all beckon teasingly from beyond the barbed wire. The gaiety cannot eliminate the harsh realities of camp life, but it provides the characters with a necessary, if fleeting, escape.

Imagined liberation is not the only form of freedom in which the characters indulge: one of the plot lines threaded through the play focuses is the repeated attempt of an RAF officer to escape from the camp through increasingly ingenious methods. His failed escape plans continue to leave him confined to yet another stint of solitary confinement, where he takes to musing on the sinister uncertainty of the prisoners’ fate if the Germans are to win the war.

The play is exceptionally well-acted; the actors deftly switch roles on more than one occasion throughout the performance.

Elks primarily portrays a port-sipping former public school boy, switching in one scene to the role of despondent Northerner lamenting the loss of his young wife to an American, while Frost transforms himself convincingly from a budding artist from Leamington into a Nazi prison guard and back again.

The set that provides the backdrop to the PoW camp is understandably bare, comprised of little more than a couple of wooden doors on wheels, an easel and a minimal set of props. The wooden doors are expertly manipulated, turning from train to prison-cell door and at one point even into beds. The stripped-back set fades to black at the end of the play, as a screen at the back of the stage is revealed and images of the real artists’ abstract work appear. The view of the art work provides an accomplished finish to the play, encapsulating the script’s message that something positive can be born out of hardship.

Music is used to great effect in this play. A nostalgic 1940s soundtrack plays at intervals throughout and snippets of contemporary radio broadcasts also help evoke the spirit of the age. In one notable scene, the radio broadcaster cheerfully mentions that Bing Crosby’s latest release, White Christmas, is going down a storm on the Home Front. As the jingle plays, the thought of a cosy Christmas back in England is juxtaposed with the image of the two officers interned in stark Stalag 383. Lying in bed, they notice icicles on the ceiling of their hut and one character recounts the story of inmates who have been fighting over soap, not to wash with but to eat. The characters again take refuge in reverie, smacking their lips as they conjure up thoughts of potatoes roasted in goose fat, vintage wine and buckets of brandy butter.

Artfully creating the perfect balance between laughter and seriousness, abstract painting and war-time politics, this play is a fine piece of art in itself.

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Victoria Weavil

at 09:44 on 9th Nov 2011

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Art has the power to lift us out of the very bleakest of external realities. And by juxtaposing the grim realities of life in a WWII prisoner-of-war camp with the defiant powers of the imagination, Stalag Happy demonstrates just how true this can be. Yet for all its jokey repartees and giddy flights of fancy into the realm of pure imagination, the narrative remains grounded throughout by an underlying note of tragedy that hints at the real grimness of the protagonists’ wartime existence.

The story follows the lives of prisoners-of-war Adrian Heath (Edward Elks) and Terry Frost (Dan Frost, Sir Terry Frost’s grandson) – later set to become two of the UK’s most eminent abstract artists – as they struggle to rise above the daily hardships and mental exertions of life in camp Stalag 383. And with its dazzling interweaving of fact and fiction - sirens sound out alongside Butlins-style camp announcements, variety theatre performances, fanciful skits, character shifts and an endless exchange of cheeky banter - the show delivers a wonderful synthesis of entertainment and food for thought. Add to this a highly evocative soundtrack of 1940s music hall tunes, and you have just the right dose of wistful nostalgia and saddening melancholy.

Yet it is the highly poignant relationship between the two protagonists that holds the true force in this production. For in spite of all the puerile jibes and laddish wisecracks (Adrian mocks Terry for his ‘feminine hands’, while Terry has a jab at Adrian for his night-time poetry renditions), the friendship provides the pair with a source of emotional comfort utterly lacking in their harsh surroundings. Bouncing off one another in true double-act fashion, the two act out imaginary trips to Margate, summon up the perfect Christmas dinner (with all the trimmings, cranberry sauce and all), and dream up mental images of girls with ocean blue eyes and never-ending legs. All of this to escape the grimness of camp life. And they succeed, to a point. But reality has a nasty habit of kicking its way back in: and with scenes such as Tom’s heart-rending tale of losing his wife to a ‘Yank’, and Adrian’s violent clash with German prison guard ‘Toadstool’, it does just that.

The set is sparse – with just two wooden doors and a couple of chairs to work with – yet masterfully choreographed. The acting is first-rate throughout, with both Elks and Frost managing the seemingly unending character shifts with ease and great skill. Yet if the play has one weakness it is perhaps to be found in precisely these non-stop character shifts and jumpy transitions. For the narrative disjointedness that ensues, coupled with the somewhat abrupt, ambiguous conclusion, runs the risk of leaving audience members confused as to where the imagination ends and reality begins. All in all, however, Stalag Happy provides a thoroughly enjoyable, poignant account of man’s capacity to find beauty amidst even the starkest desolation, and a well-received insight into the lives of two prominent artists. Well worth a visit this week!

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