Astoria at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre | Review

In the past week, I’ve seen two plays that featured a main character who was Jewish and was either born or spent time in Vienna in the 1930s. Both protagonists lived tough lives and ended up in Nazi concentration camps. One of them, And Then They Came For Me brought me to tears, the other Astoria made me weep in frustration.

Astoria CastThe reason for the frustration is that the story of Jura Soyfer should have made for an interesting and educational story to be added to the canon of tales about those who suffered in Europe in the years before the war and during the holocaust. Unfortunately, Astoria is a muddy and muddled telling of the life of Soyfer who as a Russian emigrant to Vienna, became known as a charismatic character who wrote satirical articles, plays and cabarets that were performed in clubs such as the ABC Theatre where the play is located.

On a simple set, consisting of some tables and chairs, a desk and a few crates, most of the action takes place in the ABC where the performers are rehearsing and then performing a satirical show, ‘Astoria’ (written by Soyfer) which is intercut with scenes from the characters’ lives as part of the play we’re watching called Astoria (written by Tony Britten). If that sounds confusing, it is as the two plays intercut using projected photos to explain where the scenes are being set. Along the way, we meet Soyfer, Helli (who is Soyfer’s girlfriend), John Lehman, a gay, English writer (shades of Cliff Bradshaw in ‘Cabaret’), Martin Miller and Jimmy Berg who are actors who appear in Joyfer’s play. We also meet the various characters in the play within the play.

Joyfer’s ‘Astoria’ is a satirical take on the state and how it confuses and victimises the people who live in it (if it really exists that is) and there are definite resonances with current affairs but you have to dig deep to find them. At times the scenes are cut so quickly that it’s hard to grasp exactly where we are in place and time and there are a number of blackouts where events occur off-stage. At times it seems a bit scattergun, aiming at lots of topics such as politics, antisemitism, the utopian state etc. and none of them really hit the mark. There are a number of songs (especially in act one) that don’t linger long in the memory and one in particular, had an essence of Noël Coward sprinkled all over it. There’s also some odd, loud orchestral, cinematic music in act two that seems out of place and unnecessary.

One of the problems with the production, is that as well as writing the play, Britten has also directed the piece, written some of the songs and the incidental music, and helped translate some of Soyfer’s lyrics which is a lot for one person to take on. The play would definitely have benefited from another pair of eyes especially as the direction of the actors is all a bit loose, as is the play itself – it would have benefited from having at least twenty minutes cut from the two-hour running time. There’s a really long coda at the end set at a memorial for Soyfer who died of typhoid fever in Buchenwald concentration camp, where the four other characters remember their friend and there’s finally some emotion shown but it all feels a bit tacked on and manipulative.

There’s an interesting story to be told about the long-forgotten Jura Soyfer – unfortunately, this version of Astoria isn’t it.

2-star

Review by Alan Fitter

Vienna, 1937. Germany is poised to annex Austria, social democracy has been all but obliterated and the country is lurching ever further to the right.

In the tiny ABC Theatre, the most politically noisy of the Kleinkunstbühnen – the “little theatres” of Vienna – a young communist Jewish playwright, Jura Soyfer, is a rising star. But he is increasingly in danger for lampooning the establishment with his blackly comedic plays such as Astoria, which brilliantly skewers the populism that shatters so many dreams.

Using material from Soyfer’s original, this new Astoria tells the story of a group of actors and writers who take huge risks to make theatre that entertains, engages and asks big questions. Come and join us at the ABC and meet them and their friend Jura, this extraordinary young man whose work resonates as loudly now as it did then.

Original play by Jura Soyfer, translated by Horst Jarka

Creative Team: Director: Tony Britten Music by Jimmy Berg, Tony Britten, Herbert Zipper Lyrics by Jura Soyfer, translated by Tony Britten Set Designer: Sorcha Corcoran Costume Designer: Alice Carroll Lighting Designer: Stuart Glover Sound Designer: Alex Turner Produced by Music Theatre London

Cast:
Olivia Benjamin, Benjamin Chandler, Taylor Danson Sam Denia, Joshua Ginsberg

Tuesday 28 March – Saturday 15 April 7.30pm
https://brockleyjack.co.uk/