Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells, London 18th July - 5th August 2012
Writer: Tom McNab
Director: Jenny Lee
Cast: Ryan McCluskey, Craig Pinder, David Baron, Tim Frances, John Webber, Lauren St Paul, Peter Harding, Hannah Young, Tom Hodgkins, Cornelius Macarthy
Sliding in among the grandiose productions that make up the 2012 festival, is a little play exploring an historic moment in Olympic history. Former trainer Tom McNab writes about the events leading up to the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Berlin, as told from the perspective of an American journalist in 1948 during the Berlin airlift. The narrative mainly flashes between Hitler and Goebbels arguing about the cultural benefits in Germany and the Amateur Athletic Union in the USA as they decide whether to boycott the event or not. It sweeps by record breaking Olympian Jesse Owens and German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl as well as members of the IOC and a sports historian.
The questions it raises are certainly bold: whether a boycott would have made a difference, and it tries to educate the audience with a few sporting and historical facts. But an 80 minute play that flits around space/time and has actors playing multiple roles was always going to be confusing. For some reason, the British, American and Belgian accents are played correctly, but the Germans are turned into upper class English, which doesn’t help matters and makes it feel like a bad Hollywood film. I had to stifle a laugh when one of the characters made a reference to bad American movies: “they keep their clothes on during love scenes”, even though only 30 minutes before we’d seen her emerge from a shower wearing a velcro towel with a bra underneath.
Beyond the specifics it wasn’t even very theatrical or entertaining; the end of almost every scene featured an overly emphasized philosophical line, a pause, then the actors would simply walk off stage. The cast couldn’t make much of the ham-fisted writing, which I suspected from the opening line: “That was then, this is now” (please writers, never do that). In such a quiet, open theatre it was all a bit uncomfortable. But for people specifically interested in the subject, it may be redeemed by a short screening of Riefenstahl’s Olympia at the end, with a discussion from the writer and cast.
VERDICT: ** (Two Stars) A timely but untheatrical stab at the morals of sports participation in countries with questionable ethics.