Maggie Smith in A German Life – review

Downton Abbey star in clever one woman play by Christopher Hampton


4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Production shot of Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre
Maggie Smith in A German Life at The Bridge Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks

The set comprises a small living room with an old lady sitting on a chair alone on a thrust stage talking to the audience. She never stands up. For 100 minutes we listen, I mean really listen.

The lady is Maggie Smith playing a real person called Brunhilde Pomsel who among other things was secretary to the monstrous Josef Goebbels, a top Nazi during World War Two. Apart from the light around her getting darker and focusing increasingly on this slight figure, Jonathan Kent’s production and Anna Fleischle‘s design are restrained, by which I mean, as gimmick-free as they can be.

The play is based on interviews Frau Pomsel gave in her old age. They may have been intended to show how ordinary Germans behaved during Nazi rule and pose the question, would you have behaved any differently: ‘I had no idea what was going on. Or very little. No more than most people.’ However Christopher Hampton’s play is much more nuanced.

A German Life is partly about the false memory of old age but also the deliberate rewriting of one’s history. And Hampton is brilliant at giving clues as to what the truth might be but leaving you to make your own mind up.

This woman says she was brought up to obey but she got her first job by going off to Berlin on her own initiative. She says she was quite distanced from the womanising Goebbels yet she describes with excitement how she sat next to him at a dinner in his house when his wife was away.

Production shot of Maggie smith in A German Life art the Bridge Theatre in London
Maggie Smith. Photo: Helen Maybanks

She clearly didn’t subscribe to the Nazi ideology- for example, she had nothing against jews, she had jewish friends and employers. In that sense she is only guilty of acquiescence, of not doing anything, like many ‘ordinary’ people. But she was not in an ordinary situation- and we are bound to question her claims that she was unaware of what was going on, when she was one of the people in Goebbels’ office.

So how does Maggie Smith do at conveying this? The answer is, in the main,  she plays Pomsel as a doddery old lady. Personally, I found the hesitations and repetitions grated a little but perhaps they were meant to. It’s as if Pomsel is acting, deliberately portraying herself in this way to emphasise how harmless and how naive she was. She fiddles with her glasses, puts her hands to her face. Then every so often, emotion, usually in the form of pride, causes her mask to slip: her face lights up with a vivid memory, her voice gains a steely confidence and her glasses stab the air. 

I accept that a portrayal of a normal person isn’t going to lead to a barnstorming performance but I have to say I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected to be. I think the problem was that this was an intimate play and, although I could hear her familiar nasal voice perfectly well at the back of the stalls, I could not see her piercing eyes and facial expressions.

This may have been a performance for people sitting in the first ten rows but it takes a great actor and a great play to hold an audience for an hour and 40 minutes.

A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11 May 2019

Watch the review of A German Life on YouTube

A Very Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent – Bridge Theatre

Jim Broadbent excels in Martin Mcdonagh’s latest black comedy 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Production shot of Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh's A Very Very Very Dark Matter at Bridge Theatre London
Jim Broadbent in Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Martin McDonagh‘s latest black comedy, is very very very dark and also very very very funny.

The lead character is the Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen is portrayed as an egocentric idiot. It is clear from the start that the true writer of his terrifying tales is a woman from the Congo whom he keeps in a cage and calls Marjory.

Click here to watch the YouTube review

Hans loves the public’s adulation but at a public reading of The Little Mermaid he can’t even pronounce the word ‘ether’. Behind the perfect avuncular face is a very unpleasant man totally lacking in self awareness. Jim Broadbent gives us a comic tour de force.

Production photo of Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter at Bridge Theatre London
Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Marjory is far more intelligent, erudite and sensitive than him. Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, making her professional theatre debut, has a quiet authority that complements Jim Broadbent’s jolly but insecure sadist. She has travelled back in time in an effort to prevent a massacre in which the Belgian colonialists murdered 10 million of her people.

A macabre, bizarre, exhilarating ride

She has seen humanity’s heart of darkness (which incidentally is what Joseph Conrad called his novel about colonialists in the Congo) and it comes out in her fairy tales. Hans wishes she could provide happier endings but doesn’t interfere, except to censor her title The Little Black Mermaid which to him is an oxymoron.

At least one theme of the play is nineteenth century Europeans’ attitude to their colonies, which they saw as resources to be exploited to enrich the West. The title A Very Very Very Dark Matter may not only refer to the dark content of the play but also to dark matter itself which scientists believe makes up 80% of the universe but is invisible even though the 20% we can see can’t exist without it, in the way that the third world’s resources made the western world’s success possible.

Hans, as what he calls her ‘looky aftery’ person, represents European exploiters of the colonies. He has no concept of his cruelty, even though he has cut off one of her feet!  Even his efforts to be kind or provide an upbeat ending are naïve at best, ignorant at worst.

A Jeeves & Wooster for our times

Together Marjorie and Hans are a Jeeves and Wooster for our times. And this pair are as funny as Wodehouse’s servant and master, albeit less actual fun, given our modern awareness of the evil way in which human beings have behaved toward each other.

There are many hilarious moments, perhaps the best of which is when Hans visits Charles Dickens or Charles Darwin as he insists on calling him. He suspects that Dickens too has a ghost writer from the Congo. Andersen can’t comprehend even the most explicit insults directed at him- and the language is both modern and coarse (‘You’re shitting me’ is one of the milder phrases).

Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington & Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Phil Daniels, Elizabeth Berrington & Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Mr and Mrs Dickens, wonderfully played by Phil Daniels and Elizabeth Berrington, exhibit a shocking but significant contempt for their children- they don’t even know their names- and there’s even time for a joke about a skeleton that is both metaphorically and literally in a cupboard.

Anna Fleischle’s set is a superb attic full of dark corners and hanging puppets, very like a scene from one of Andersen’s sinister fairy tales.

If there is a fault, it’s that A Very Very Very Dark Matter is a bit light on plot. I would have liked to have been more excited about the fate of Marjory and about whether Hans learns from his experience. Or simply a few more twists. Otherwise I can’t praise the comedy or Matthew Dunster‘s production enough

A Very Very Very Dark Matter can be seen at Bridge Theatre until 6 January 2019

Watch below for the review of A Very Very Very Dark Matter the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Some minor amendments made on 28 October 2018- paragraphs 6 and 7 swapped and subheading added.