Review: Gabriel At The Playhouse

Photo: Robin Savage
 Review by Nigel Smith IT is frequently overlooked in history lessons that the Channel Islands were occupied by Nazi forces during the Second World War. Moira Buffini took the situation in Guernsey in 1943 as the subject for her early play, Gabriel, first performed at the Soho Theatre in 1997, and in so doing has created a powerful drama that sees the effects of occupation on a community through a sharply focused, almost claustrophobic study of one family group. Jeanne Bequet (Belinda Lang) is a widow who has been moved out of her home into a small farmhouse to make way for the German command on the island. With her are her young daughter Estelle, her daughter-in-law Lily and Lake, their housekeeper. Her son, Lily’s husband, is missing in action and Jeanne fears the worst. Jeanne tries to keep the family going in whatever way she can, including a spot of black market trading, and the interference from Major Von Pfunz (Paul McGann) is about the last thing she needs. She’d had an “arrangement” with his predecessor, but Von Pfunz is a less amenable prospect. After an initial misunderstanding on his first appearance, in which she manages to give away more about herself than she’d intended, they begin to forge an abrasive understanding. The situation becomes more complicated when Lily and Estelle find a young man, naked and unconscious on the beach and drag him back to the house. When he finally awakes it turns out that his clothes are not all he has lost, as he’s also devoid of any memory of who he is or where he came from. It gets doubly awkward when he puts in an appearance when Von Pfunz is in the house, and it turns out he’s as fluent in German as he is in English. Robin Morrissey, familiar to Liverpool audiences for numerous recent appearances at both the Playhouse and the Everyman, is splendidly enigmatic as the young man who Lily and Estelle have named Gabriel. He plays the amnesiac other-worldliness beautifully and walks the strange tightrope of a man with intrinsic confidence and tremendous fragility with great style. All four female roles are excellently cast, with special note going to Sarah Schoenbeck for Lily and Belinda Lang for her brittle but steely determined Jeanne. McGann and Lang have a tremendous chemistry on stage, and Schoenbeck and Morrissey aren’t that far behind them in this. The play takes its time to get going, with much of the action in the first act all about setting the scene for act two, in which the tale takes a darker turn as it propels itself to its tragic end. Carla Goodman’s set is a huge construction, built up on a raised platform to give us a sense of something else happening beneath the floor (as hinted to in Estelle’s almost hysterical early scenes) and contains everything in an oppressive cocoon, helping director Kate McGregor to focus the dramatic intensity. This is an unusually solid touring production, and a great revival of a piece that takes a very different viewpoint on aspects of history that we would do well not to forget. At the Playhouse until Saturday 8th April.