A mysterious amnesiac turns up on a beach in occupied Guernsey and is nursed back to health in a house full of women with secrets and a whiff of collaboration; an enigmatic and oleaginous Nazi commander arrives with designs on the family matriarch. Despite the genuine and played-for laughs, Gabriel is no ‘Allo ‘Allo.
Much of the humour comes from the waspish and slightly sozzled Jeanne Becquet (Belinda Lang), who wrings every ounce of contempt out of every enunciation, as if she can keep the Germans at bay with scorn and an upper-class sense of British superiority. She must think on her feet and dance on a pinhead if she is to protect those closest to her, particularly spirited daughter Estelle and Jewish Lily, unwanted and on the island courtesy of Jeanne’s RAF son.
But it’s the mother’s acid tongue that plunges them all into danger when making fun of the apparently-buffoonish Commander Von Pfunz, fresh from the chaos of mainland Europe. While Paul McGann’s character is not a typical Nazi, and while he may have designs on the matriarch, he’s no fool and swiftly gains a power over the women that may compel them to attend a picnic or get a bullet in the head.
Seeing McGann again clad in wartime regalia and full-moon specs is an interesting contrast to his appearance in The Monocled Mutineer, his breakthrough role. Despite a career playing different shades of detachment and diffidence, his portrayal of the commander of the island’s German army is particularly animated and physical. He sways giddily on the balls of his feet in glee at Jeanne’s dishonesty and Estelle’s brazenness.
Von Pfunz is playful, wheedling even but there’s always a hint of menace about him. He may be a pragmatist, an aesthete who loves Donne and Keats, but he’s still a Nazi. This is a man who has seen the charnel houses of Eastern Europe and seen only the poetry in them.
He is prepared to tolerate the poltergeist in the shape of Estelle, waging a low-level campaign of disobedience on the German, and the black-market dabblings of the four women – even when it becomes clear they are harbouring a man who may be an SS officer, a British spy or an angel summoned by the youngest of the quartet.
The four women give little indication they appreciate the blind eye Von Pfunz turns. Yet they are not inviolate, as he warns them. When her hand is forced, Jeanne offers herself to him, but the prospect initially repels him as he repels her. Thus all the characters enter into a strange inter-dependency, bound together by complicity, secrets, yearning. The taut direction and sense of uneasiness engendered by strong performances make for an unsettling production.
The distant crashing of the sea and minimalist score form a constant rumbling menace, a reminder of the chaos unfurling just a few miles from this peculiar, intimate power-play. No good can come out of Gabriel’s fall to earth, just a series of least-worst choices.
Until 8 April