Anything That Flies – credit Robert Workman

Anything That Flies – fine debut play by novelist Judith Burnley

Anything That Flies – credit Robert Workman
Anything That Flies – credit Robert Workman

It is 1991. We are in the small and claustrophobic sitting room in Belsize Park, London of Otto Huberman a seventy-something German-born but naturalised Brit who is listening to Brahms’ Piano Quintet No. 1 on a top of the range HiFi and through large and high-quality speakers. He is totally engaged in the music and seeks to make it perfect by minor adjustments to the volume and the speaker positions. He is interrupted by the doorbell which he unenthusiastically responds to and, after some irritable banter, he reluctantly admits a striking middle-aged blonde woman who introduces herself as Charlotta Hohenloe von Rothenberg. Playwright Judith Burnley has set the scene for a thought-provoking, often funny, but essentially deeply moving double-hander which explores some heavy themes in its one hour twenty minute single act.

The Holocaust has inspired some great art, large and small, but it is often drama set on a smaller stage and telling the story of its impact on a small number of ordinary people that resonates most strongly. Earlier this year we saw Stephen Unwin’s moving All Our Children at this same theatre and like that very intimate play Anything That Flies explores how grotesque and unimaginable events changed the lives of families forever. We learn that Otto lost all his family at Buchenwald and how the aristocratic Charlotta’s father was hanged for his part in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. We hear the personal stories of Otto’s murdered family and Charlotta’s guilt about the death of her English Nanny after the Nanny had lost her Wehrmacht officer lover to enemy action. These are the “small” stories nobody hears – they are often lost in the huge histories of genocide and war – multiply them a million times to understand.

Along with the big themes of loss, deprivation and the struggle for survival, there are more prosaic observations on aging. Otto has had a stroke which is why his Israeli daughter arranged for Charlotta to come and care for him. Over the brief course of the play, his condition worsens – both his bodily functions and, to an extent, his mind are becoming less functional. For a proud man, this is difficult and he is in denial. Charlotta is a sympathetic and caring woman who even shrugs off a couple of lascivious lunges that Otto makes at her.

The play is about loss and guilt. When Otto says to Charlotta: “What had you lost? You’re not a Jew. People like you didn’t suffer.” she replies “There isn’t a monopoly on suffering… I lost everything. Lands, heritage, money. But most of all I lost the sense of what it was to be a German, a real, civilised, traditional German, with real and honourable and lasting German values”. This is fine writing and it should make us think again about victimhood in the context of that hideous war.

Guilt can lead to forgiveness though when we consider the enormity of the crimes this is difficult, almost impossible. But the modern German state has offered reparations and whether Otto should accept them on behalf of his family is covered well. There is a moral maze here – and a complex one. The title comes from an incident in 1941 when the Gestapo came to take Otto’s family away. He tells the story in a long and moving speech which explains his aversion to the idea of eating “… anything that flies – or tries to fly”. The trauma of that night has stayed with him into old age and although superficially irrational it is immutable – as Charlotta finds out when she puts a roast chicken on the dinner table!

Clive Morrison as Otto and Issy van Randwyck are exceptional in the two roles of the play – utterly believable under Alice Hamilton’s tight direction. This is a play which could perhaps descend into sentimentality in the wrong hands and this is completely avoided – it is compelling from beginning to end. In these nationalistic times virtues are often accredited to those wallowing assuredly and self-congratulatingly in their own “patriotism” rather than to those who feel themselves citizens of a wider grouping like Europe, or even the world. As Theresa May put it “…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” “anything that flies” shows the shallowness of such rhetoric. Citizens of Germany were not unitary in the feelings they had for their citizenship whether at the time of the Nazis or later when the Country was divided post-war. For Charlotta and her family honour and true values trumped citizenship when the Third Reich took power. It was never “my country right or wrong”. And for Otto Britain, his adopted home, of which he is a citizen, replaced Germany in his loyalties though he in the end is clearly proud of the “… new, modern, economically sound and soundly democratic Germany” which he says, needs people like Charlotta who is “… a new but also old kind of German”. Anything That Flies is a very fine debut as a playwright by the novelist Judith Burnley. The Jermyn Street Theatre is the perfect venue for it.

4 Stars

Review by Paddy Briggs

Directed by Alice Hamilton
Lighting Design by Elliot Griggs
Set and Costume Design by Neil Irish and Emily Adamson
Music and Sound Design by Max Pappenheim

I hate Christopher Robin. He’s everything I loathe about England. Sentimental. Sanctimonious. Above all, false. Childhood was never like that.

The Berlin Wall has fallen. Reparations are being made to Jewish families. Germany has reunited. And in Belsize Park, Otto Huberman is listening to recordings of himself playing Brahms, when he is interrupted by a visitor who will turn his life upside down.

Jermyn Street Theatre
The ESCAPE Season
By Judith Burnley
A World premiere

Wed, 18th October – Sat, 11th November

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