Theatre review: Lotty’s War
10:43 15 October 2014
If you want to see a superb piece of theatre, then catch Lotty’s War at Cheltenham Everyman, running until Saturday, October 18
At 18, on a gap-year between school and university, I was determined to go to France as an au pair; but I made the mistake of stopping off at Guernsey, on the way. I knew it slightly – and I’d read Elizabeth Goudge’s wonderful Green Dolphin Country – but I wasn’t prepared for the way this little island, a dot in the ocean, grabbed at my heart and wouldn’t let go. I ended up working there, more or less, all year.
I arrived from Jersey in the smallest plane I’d ever been in. Sitting room was on two facing benches; the pilot turned to the last person in and said, “Close the door!” Some years later, when my brother drove (via ferry from Weymouth) to visit an island relative, he was told, “I’ll meet you at the port; it’s dangerous now. They’ve put in a new traffic system and cars fly at you from every direction.” When my brother turned up, he found the island’s first roundabout.
It was idyllic – so safe that I could cycle to the beach at midnight and wander along the deserted shores. But there was something that was never mentioned: the war. Nor did I ask; somehow – I’m not sure whether it was a justified silence on my part or not – it felt like prying; almost like prodding a wound.
And now I understand. Now that I’ve seen Lotty’s War, on stage at Cheltenham’s Everyman, I understand. Firstly, there’s the programme, with its hard-faced sepia photographs. It tells us how the Germans saw the Channel Islands as a base from which to invade Britain; and, when they made their move, Britain (one could say) took the strategic decision of leaving the situation to play out while it concentrated on other issues.
Thousands of children were evacuated. For those who remained, there were five years of German occupation; “Before long, there would be as many as three soldiers for every resident”. A curfew was imposed from 11pm-5am; all houses had to fly a white flag; everyone had to carry an ID card. Films at the cinema – complete with portrait of Hitler – were in German; singing the National Anthem was verboten.
All that, of course, makes for drama. But Lotty’s War’s author Giuliano Crispini went a layer below that cruel surface. What is morality, he asks, in impossible circumstances? Is it, as Guernsey’s bailiff believed, integrating himself into the German government so that he at least could oversee food distribution and medical aid for islanders? Or is it to resist with every last core of your being and escape – as eight islanders did in September 1940, in a 20ft boat, rowing out to sea despite enemy planes flying overhead and dropping flares within yards of them?
Crispini himself had grown up on the island, playing ‘Germans and Brits’ in the bunkers and gun batteries that still litter the shore; so his knowledge – from the patois (when I lived there, I think one elderly patois-speaking islander remained) to the shameful silence – is profound. And he used it brilliantly. Lotty is a young woman whose father was one of the 33 killed in the initial invasion; her boyfriend, Ben, wants to get married. But their lives are catastrophically altered, not just by the invasion, but by the incursion of General Rolf Bernberg, who takes over Lotty’s house and blackmails her into becoming his housekeeper.
This is the tragedy of an island, where food is so scarce that ‘coffee’ is made from grated parsnip and bramble leaves for tea. Eventually, even that runs out. For Lotty and her German General, life is slightly sweeter – both in terms of supplies, and in terms of their feelings towards each other, which turn from the utmost froideur into something a little more complicated.
The horror of the islanders’ position is starkly played out from the start. Lotty wants to take a plate of leftover supper to her neighbour, but Ben won’t let her. “What is some German soldier going to do if he catches me out with a plate of ham sandwiches! Shoot me?”
While slightly confused by Ben’s almost childlike early scenes (played by Adam Gillen), the drama between Lotty (Olivia Hallinan) and the General (Mark Letheren) was mesmerising and utterly convincing.
As the play progresses, it becomes clear that they’re all trapped, and not just by guns. Some by orders; some by necessity; some by loyalty; some by confusion. As the author comments in the programme, these situations lead right-thinking people to ask, “What would I have done?” Judging the past can be a dangerously self-satisfying task.
My only comment in this wonderful play would be: did the end need to border on the melodramatic? Perhaps it needed to mirror the horrors of the world outside the tight cottage scene in which the play took place. But I’d have been satisfied with a more cerebral, psychological, verbal outcome.
Still, I loved it. It made me think; it made me feel; it made me ashamed that I would ever pass judgement on anyone in an impossible situation. Because impossible situations are exactly that. Impossible.
• Lotty’s War by Giuliano Crispini, adapted by Clare Slater, is at Cheltenham Everyman from Monday, October 13-Saturday, October 18; 7-10 Regent St, Cheltenham GL50 1HQ, 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk