The National Theatre’s Connections programme has been a major force within the youth theatre community, extending performance opportunities and repertoire. Step on Stage is one of the many groups presenting The Edelweiss Pirates this year, an uncompromising and bleak portrayal of alternative youth movements in Hitler’s Germany.
Ayub Khan Din’s script offers some challenging opportunities as well as a number of problems for the director. Necessarily short, the piece is also devoid of light and shade, with the Edelweiss Pirates portrayed at a time when their desperation led them to savage acts in return for the much greater savagery around them. In a longer play, we could perhaps have been shown some of the other benefits of this group of mixed-sex organisations, attractive to young people in a way that could not be matched by the compulsory membership of the Hitler Youth.
The Step on Stage company, under the direction of Emma-Louise McCauley-Tinniswood, show themselves well able to meet the challenge of this uncompromising script. Performing in the comfortable surroundings and large stage of the Hampton Hill Playhouse, though to a disappointingly small house at the matinee, the cast showed a high level of concentration, commitment and focus.
In a generally strong cast, Dominique Thomas’s Narrator and Fayed Mahmoud’s Benjamin were particularly good performances; their diction throughout, and that of Anastasia Drew, ensured that every word was heard, whether they were addressing the audience or interacting with other characters. Dominique Thomas provided a crisp underpinning for the performance, whether weaving into the narrative or addressing the audience directly. Fayed Mahmoud’s account of the letter to his mother was delivered with an impressive display of appropriate emotion.
The other principal cast were all more than equal to their roles and provided entirely believable performances. If they were sometimes unable to bring light and shade to their characters this was no reflection on them but on the focus of the script on this most bleak of periods in the middle of the war. The ensemble provided useful support both through stylised movement interludes and by some telling and well-delivered group dialogue sequences.
Lighting throughout was a real strength of this production, with Stuart Glover providing a crisply timed and wholly appropriate lit landscape for the play. The use of historical film footage and photographs at the beginning and end of the piece helped to root it in reality. However, it was unfortunate that the placing of the narrator blocked some of the subtitles at the beginning, and the decision to use the shocking image of the hanging of a group of teenagers at the end was questionable, not so much because of the image itself but because it tended to devalue the genuine horror of the story as portrayed by the cast.
Despite these few reservations, most of them relating to the script rather than the production, this was an impressive production from McCauley-Tinniswood and her whole team, and deserves to be seen more widely.