THE Finborough Theatre in London’s Chelsea is in a rich vein of form judging by its latest production Incident at Vichy.
This little known Arthur Miller play, which runs until April 22, is a sell-out although it is possible that the richness of the production will win it a follow-up billing closer to London’s West End. Sadly as this play demonstrates, justice does not always prevail so don’t bank on it
The 90-minute play takes place in Vichy France in 1942. It is set in a detention room where seven gentlemen sit on a bench awaiting their fate.
They have all been picked up that morning – and are soon joined by three others. They sit against a white backdrop. A veil of claustrophobia envelops them, helped by the compactness of the Finborough theatre.
It is an eclectic mix of individuals, including a communist electrician (Bayard) who works on the railways, a painter who is so nervous he cannot stop talking (Lebeau), a shaking young lad who has popped out to pawn his mother’s ring, a well attired Austrian Prince (Von Berg) and a war veteran doctor (Leduc).
But it is obvious that race is why most of them are there. As Lebeau asks: ‘Did they measure your nose?’. He then adds: ‘I am scared to death.’
Slowly but surely, they are taken one by one into a room to be ‘inspected’ by a superficially amiable (but grotesque) Professor Hoffman. If they are found to have been circumcised, they do not return.
Although businessman Marchand, the first to undergo examination, is given a pass to resume his life, others are less fortunate, presumably put onto a train that will ultimately take them to a death camp and extermination. Only Von Berg, a gentile, joins Marchand in being provided with a ticket to freedom although he makes the ultimate sacrifice in the play’s finale by giving it to Leduc.
It is the interactions – and frictions – between the detainees as well as the contrasts in character that make this play so engrossing. Tensions rise to pressure cooker levels. Tempers fray. Some cope stoically. Others literally go to pieces.
At one end of the spectrum, there is Monceau, an actor who is in absolute denial over what the Nazis are doing to the Jews. At the other end, there is the principled Leduc who is fiercely proud of his Jewishness and Von Berg who recalls how he wept when the oboist of the orchestra he was part of was taken from his garden by the Nazis. ‘He’s dead now,’ he laments. ‘Nothing now is unthinkable.’
This 1964 Miller play is a gem – a masterpiece – that deserves a wider audience. Credit must go to Neil McPherson, Finborough’s artistic director, for deciding to run with it and to Phil Wilmott, the play’s director, for moulding it to the venue.
There is not a weak link in the cast although Edward Killingback as Von Berg and Gethin Alderman as Leduc are exceptional. Even Jeremy Gagan as the elderly Jew is captivating – his silence says more than words. He is the perfect counterpoint to the garrulous Lebeau (played quite marvellously by Lawrence Boothman) who by the end is sweating profusely and twitching nervously.
‘Bravo,’ shouted the audience as the 13-strong cast took their second bow. Bravo indeed. A play that will long linger in the mind – and rightly so.
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