The Theatreguide.London Review
Ian Kennedy Martin's new play addresses a subject generally neglected by historians and creative writers, Ireland's neutrality in World War II. His mode is to watch two minor consular clerks in Berlin as they try to keep their heads down while moral questions are forced on them.
The issues of the play are thought-provoking and the personal dramas frequently moving, though the playwright is less successful in integrating the two. As a result, you are likely to be intellectually engaged by questions that don't involve you emotionally, and moved by moments that have little to do with the play's ideas.
Emblematic of this disjunction is the play's title, which comes from a comment rather clumsily inserted into the dialogue and not particularly resonant in its imagery, of having to decide how long you can just ride along with things and when you have to get off.
A little more effective, though equally awkward in its shoehorning into the script, is a story one character tells in one of the very last speeches of the play, whose moral is that there is virtue in just following orders and doing your duty. It is a dubious moral, and comes too late, but at least it sets up the terms of a debate Martin hasn't fully dramatised in the preceding action.
One of the two clerks is an irresponsible joker, the other a priggish plodder. They don't particularly like each other, their coolness growing greater as they respond differently to rumours and then knowledge of the concentration camps, and to the invasion of Nazi evil into their little island of routine as an enigmatic and quietly threatening German official keeps dropping by, hunting spies and, almost in passing, their Jewish cook.
Owen McDonnell manoeuvres the difficult task of morphing from jester to the play's moral voice, while Sean Campion gradually lets us see that there is a philosophical basis, however misguided, to his character's blinkered dedication to his job.
As the German, Peter Moreton is particularly impressive in a scene in which he quietly but viciously demonstrates his power over the cook, while Isla Carter scores in the same scene by letting her character retain her dignity under pressure.
But each of these performances, as directed by Michael Rudman, works entirely on the personal level, as the playwright's attempt to make them raise larger political and moral questions remains an intellectual overlay.
If Berlin Hanover Express makes you think, it will be because the playwright tells you there are things here to be thought about, not because the play made those issues come alive. It is ultimately an excellent idea for a play rather than the successful dramatisation of the idea.
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Review - Berlin Hanover Express - Hampstead 2009