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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Tales From the Vienna Woods
Olivier Theatre, Autumn 2003

One of the remits of a National Theatre is to search out and rediscover lost or little-known works, fully aware that the challenge is doubly risky - the play may prove not worth the resurrection, or the director and cast may find themselves unable to get in tune with it.

And I fear that this new production of Oden von Horvath's 1931 melodrama stumbles at both hurdles.

The play is deliberately a string of soap-opera cliches - a ne'er-do-well meets a newly engaged girl and runs off with her; her father disowns her; her baby is fostered; her lover abandons her; she sinks into shame. . . , and all to a background of Strauss waltzes and other Vienna schmaltz.

Horvath's satiric point is that what we would call the lower middle classes lead second-rate lives with second-rate passions and second-rate tragedies that cannot transcend the kitsch of their pop culture. That's not bad as dark, ironic visions go, though perhaps it really needs the bitter anger of a Brecht to really succeed.

While Horvath's play was evidently strong enough to delight Berliners and offend the Viennese seventy years ago, it seems mild and unfocussed today - for example, it takes almost two-thirds of its length for the play to figure out that it is about the girl.

And Richard Jones' new production for the National Theatre does not serve the play well, being almost totally unable to bring the deliberate cliches and muted story to life. Every one of the play's fourteen scenes just lies there like a lump; every one of the scene-ending climaxes is a damp squib; every slow and clumsy scene change destroys what little momentum the play might have been trying to build up.

As I said, the play itself does not seem much of a masterpiece, but this is one of the rare cases where virtually all of a production's failure can be laid at one person's feet - the director. Jones either did not understand the play, or was simply unable to guide his actors to find any reality in it.

Though Joe Duttine and Nicola Walker can't do much with the central couple, and the usually reliable Karl Johnson works far too hard (and visibly) as the unforgiving father, a few in the large cast are able to retain some dignity.

Frances Barber scores as a hard-edged but sympathetic neighbour and Doreen Mantle as a truly evil witch of a grandmother, while Darrell D'Silva, Gary Oliver and David Ross provide some background humour.

Nicky Gillibrand's set design earns special mention as one of the ugliest, clumsiest and least practical I've ever seen at the National.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Tales From the Vienna Woods - National 2003