I am Camera
This is a play written by John Van Druten which first saw the light of day back in 1951. It is based on a novella entitled 'Sally Bowles' written by Christopher Isherwood back in 1937. The name 'Sally Bowles' might ring a bell, as indeed it should, because Sally is one of the central characters in the musical 'Cabaret' which went on to be a smash-hit film in 1972 with the effervescent Liza Minnelli as Sally.
If you've now got a handle on the ancestry of this piece, you may be expecting this to be a musical or at least a play with music, but it's not. This is a play, pure and simple, though there is some evocative music used in the scene changes. More than that, it's an intimate play which relies on character rather than action. And the plot is more like snapshots of events in the lives of the characters, as the title of the play readily suggests.
The play is set entirely in a room in a Berlin lodging house run by Fraulein Schneider, a down-to-earth and kindly landlady (well-played by Erika Poole) who nonetheless has fallen victim to Nazi propaganda about the Jews. At the start, the room belongs to Christopher, but he can't afford the rent and has to downgrade to less expensive accommodation. That allows Sally Bowles, Christopher's friend, to move into his old room as she's having problems paying her rent in a more expensive house. To pay his way, Christopher gives English lessons and one of his students, Natalia, is a member of a wealthy Jewish family which own a well-known department store. Anther friend, Fritz, sees Natalia as a way of making money and moving up the social ladder and so tries to woo her. Along the way, Fritz and Natalia fall in love, but obstacles block the path to matrimonial bliss.
Isherwood based his story in Berlin during the 1930s. At the time, Germany was careering along a path towards Fascism. There are references to the Nazis even before the start of the show because daubed on the back wall are the words “Our last hope” and “Hitler” below almost, but not quite, out of view. As we delve into the lives of the characters, we hear more about developments on Berlin's streets. There is one moving description of a young man being beaten by the Natzis and even Natalia is subjected to the Nazi street-terror.
Tight direction from Owen Calvert-Lyons and an evocative set design from Amy Yardley provide the perfect framework for a formidable cast to create impressive characterisations. Mark Jackson's admirable Christopher guides us through the plot in refined style. Christopher is educated, liberal and homosexual, though overt references to his sexuality are few and far between. He's well-contrasted with Vicki Campbell's fascinating, bubbly Sally who loves excess in almost every guise, but seems suitably less celluloid actress and more 'girl let loose on a binge' than the Minnelli version. There's good support from Tom Micklem as the ambitious Fritz, Caroline Wildi as Sally's domineering mother, and Stephen Fawkes as the overbearing American who lavishes gifts on Chris and Sally. And Natalie Ball is an exceptionally strong Natalia, facing humiliation from the Nazis with poise and dignity.
Just before the show started, a young man sitting near me told me he'd come back for a second viewing, this time bringing along some of his family. That doesn't surprise me, because this play is enormously compelling, drawing you in almost as if you are one of the other lodgers intrigued to know what's going on in the lives of everyone else in the house. Rarely produced, the play is worth seeing on that basis alone. But the bonus here is a richly atmospheric production which really makes it unmissable.