“A rewarding, haunting evening”
“Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans”, Noel Coward once famously – satirically – crooned. The opening scene of Gabriel, Moira Buffini’s too-little known, now handsomely revived 1997 wartime drama, set in occupied Guernsey in 1943 (the same year Coward’s controversial ditty was first aired), affords the spectacle of anti-German beastliness of a highly entertaining sort.
A widow called Jeanne Becquet (described as “elegant and aloof” in the stage-directions, brilliantly realised as such in Belinda Lang’s soignee performance) has invited into her enforced farmhouse lodging (her far nicer home having been requisitioned) a Nazi newcomer by the name of Von Pfunz.
He barely speaks a word of English, or so Jeanne explains to her housekeeper before gaily proceeding to insult him as she serves up a Cognac. “Do tell me about your wonderful name, Major,” she drawls, with a smile, “it sounds like flatulence.” A moment later: “You’re a very handsome race. Some of you anyway. And some of you look like goblins!” At which the interloper, played by Paul McGann (once the eternal school-boy but here, with creepy round specs, severe short back and sides and killer cheek-bones, more resembling a sinister headmaster), giggles and grins, receiving the insult with a “Nice, thank you”.
Of course, it takes no great intuition to realise that Von Pfunz’s kindergarten way with ze English language might well be a ruse and, sure enough, the tables are swiftly turned: Jeanne’s reptilian guest has merely adopted a chameleon ignorance the better to get the lie of the land. There’s enough incriminating evidence – he’s wise to her black-marketeering – to have her hauled off. But in a further twist that dares us to condemn it as an improbable fiction, he relishes her risk-taking rudeness, infatuated by someone who dares to stand up to him.
This is a fascinating chapter of history. What with the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle and the BBC’s SS-GB, television is busy plundering epic fictional ‘what-ifs?’ conjecturing the state of play had the war had gone Hitler’s way. But the fate of the Channel Islanders – effectively abandoned by the UK and treated, initially, with relative restraint by the barely resisted Germans – lies within the realm of grim fact. The televisual possibilities are plain: indeed, the small-screen has seen two notable related mini-series Enemy at the Door (1978) and Island at War (2004). What’s impressive about Gabriel, though, is its theatrical compactness and thematic complexity: it has a thriller-like plot but it also flirts with uneasy mirth, earthy romance and otherworldly inklings – into this life-and-death situation creep intimations of the supernatural.
There’s a mystery man in the fraught midst of things: a dashing youth washed naked on a nearby shore, who initially slumbers then wakes not knowing who he is, somehow fluent in German and English. He’s resented as a liability by Jeanne (who’s missing her too-adored RAF son), is fussed over by Jeanne’s 10-year-old daughter, who believes she has summoned him as a celestial saviour (hence “Gabriel”, his given name) and is tended to, in a more ardent, swiftly carnal way, by Jeanne’s (covertly Jewish) daughter-in-law Lily.
Is there a hint of hokum mingling with the scent of ozone and sea-spray? Yes: a lot happens, and melodramatically quickly, in the second half. Yet the play captures well – and Kate McGregor’s production rises to the occasion, albeit hindered by an overly elevated design – the strange unreality of the ordeal. Guernsey was somewhat cocooned from the worst horrors, although the grisly treatment of prisoners of war on the island is alluded to. In this Anglo-Teutonic no-man’s-land, there’s some saving-perilous scope for ambiguity and Lang is superb as the resistance-fighter whose weapon is her wit, double-bluffing to the hilt, her hatred cloaked beneath insouciant disdain like some undercover agent.
While having to cede his erstwhile heart-throb status to fine, upstanding newcomer Robin Morrissey as Gabriel, McGann is fantastic too as a devil for whom you almost feel sympathy – a civilised monster who has been inspired to write poetry about the concentration camps and who takes his amorous prey’s rebuffs on the chin in the pathetic-perturbing knowledge that he holds all the cards and commands all the guards. A rewarding, haunting evening.
Author: Dominic Cavendish
Belinda Lang is “effortless”; Paul McGann is “entirely convincing”
Tensions run high in this wartime mystery set in Nazi-occupied Guernsey, starring Paul McGann
Beautiful Widow Jeanne (Lang) will do whatever it takes to keep her adolescent daughter Estelle and Jewish daughter-in-law Lily safe on Guernsey in 1943. In order to survive, she trades on the black market and tolerates the romantic advances of the terrifying Commander von Pfunz (McGann).
Tensions heighten when a mysterious young man is washed ashore naked and is rescued by the women. After he regains consciousness it becomes apparent that he has no memory of who he is. The women are astonished to discover that this man, who reminds them so strongly of their loved ones at war, is fluent in both German and English. But who is he? An RAF pilot, a missing SS interrogator or local bank clerk and translator? Is he even a saviour sent from heaven? Harbouring the enemy is punishable by death and the stakes rise as the mystery deepens.
Previous stage works by Moira Buffini include Handbagged and wonder.land; Buffini also wrote the screenplay for Tamara Drewe and shared writing credits on new release The Viceroy’s House, which stars Hugh Bonneville.
Gabriel premiered in London in 1997, with Time Out calling it “a powerful English drama”. The New York Times hailed it as “a tense tale of wartime intrigue and romance [which] makes for riveting watching” when staged in New York in 2010.