Here's a rare thing: a brand-new play by a first-time playwright in the West End. That's not the only reason to applaud Taken at Midnight, though. It is also a welcome example of a commercial theatre producer taking a creative initiative to make something happen: producer Mark Goucher himself commissioned the play from the writer Mark Hayhurst after seeing a TV drama he'd written on the same true real-life figure. Together, they've done something even more important than the play itself (though that is important enough): they've reclaimed a brave forgotten figure and put his life centre stage.
That person is Hans Litten, a young Jewish lawyer who dared to put Hitler on a witness stand himself for the brutality of his SA men in 1931 Germany - and then, of course, suffered the consequences when Hitler himself came to power two years later, imprisoned in 'protective custody' first, then moved to a concentration camp.
But the play also cleverly foregrounds the indomitable figure of his mother Irmgard, who spends the play lobbying for his release, and visits him in the camp in the play's most moving and sustained scene. It makes the play about more than just another routine revisiting of numbing Nazi atrocity, but about a mother's dogged devotion to her son. That the mother is played by one of our very finest actresses Penelope Wilton - who summonses a reservoir of feeling but also has a reserve that is always perfectly held - makes that story resonate even more fiercely. There's also superb work from Martin Hutson as Hans Litten, with an excellent supporting company that includes such terrific actors as Pip Donaghy, John Light, Allan Corduner and David Yelland.
Jonathan Church's production, which originated at Chichester's Minerva Theatre late last year, is a handsome, thoughtful addition to the West End roster. It may sometimes be gruelling to watch, but it is never less than absorbing.
"Much sensitivity and skill have been brought to bear on Jonathan Church’s production, all of which makes one wish that the play itself were less pro forma than it is. Time and again, there is the sense that the actual events must have been infinitely more disturbing, and the gathering portentousness of the writing has the perverse effect of closing off the experience, instead of enlarging a playgoer’s empathic response."
Matt Wolf for The New York Times
"a superb performance by Penelope Wilton as Irmgard. Wilton increasingly reminds me of the great Peggy Ashcroft in her ability to convey moral authority without any ostentatious display of acting technique..."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
(Review of the Chichester production)
"Penelope Wilton achieves a perfect mix of passion and authority in this affecting portrait of a woman resisting the tyranny of the Nazis. Her performance vibrates with indignation, yet is skilfully measured — it’s a study of heartbreak, but also of grace."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press
The New York Times