Writer: Moira Buffini
Director: Kate McGregor
Reviewer: Tate James
The catalogue of World War II dramas tends to focus heavily on the masculinity of war: young boys becoming men the moment they enlist, the horrors of those fighting for us all, the aftermath of their experience as they struggle to integrate back into everyday life. Stories of victims of war caught in the crossfire regularly tell of the horrors of the Holocaust or the innocent children evacuated to escape the violence. So, Moira Buffini’s riveting play Gabriel is a fresh view of wartime from the perspective of the Guernsey women enduring life alongside German soldiers in occupied Europe.
It is February 1943 and the soldiers of Hitler’s regime have been stationed in Guernsey for two and a half years, in the former home of the wealthy Mrs Becquet, who has been forced to move her family to a nearby farmhouse. While she and her maid capitalise on war by trading goods to German soldiers on the black market, her restless daughter aches to return to their home and claim it back from the men who took it from her so wrongly. amid the seeming normality of a life they’ve grown used to, Mrs Becquet’s wistful Jewish daughter-in-law puts all at risk when she discovers an unknown man lying naked on the beach and brings him to the farmhouse. When the man awakes and can speak both English and German fluently, but cannot remember who he is, the women’s safety is at risk should the watchful eye of German Major Von Pfunz discover who they are really hiding. What follows is a daring display of bravery from four women on an island yet to discover the scale of the atrocities of the war.
Right from her first patronising entrance as she delivers insult after insult to the Major, expecting he doesn’t understand a word of English, only to find he has heard everything, Belinda Lang is exquisite as matriarch Mrs Becquet. Every dry quip and heartless jibe confirm her role as the driving force of this incredible cast. As Von Pfunz, Paul McGann dances on the knife-edge between compassion and evil, in an exhilarating take on the wartime villain. Still unclear whether Von Pfunz was Nazi or simply a pawn in the German regime, he provides our only connection to the war we know with his memories of concentration camps, in a truly haunting performance made even more perfect by his flawless Germanic English. This is a masterclass in accent and use of language.
Sarah Schoenbeck thrives as passion turns to despair for Jewish Lily, at first protecting the man from the beach but soon realising her own fate is in danger and Jules Melvin is stoic and honest as Lake the maid. Robin Morrissey is just the right balance of headstrong and vulnerable as the enigmatic unknown man, christened Gabriel by the final cast member, Venice Van Someren as daughter Estelle, whose youthful and rebellious delivery gives perspective to the scale of war. Her resilience in standing up to the German guard without fear or full understanding of consequence shows how powerless the minorities were against the forces of evil.
Kate McGregor has masterfully crafted this brilliant piece of writing into a humorous and harrowing evening of entertainment. Her approach is subtle and personable, focusing on the lengths people will go to in war to get what they need. To paraphrase one of Buffini’s many truisms in the play’s text, in war we are not governed by the law but by force; and this powerful display of feminine strength is a real force to be reckoned with.
Runs until 8 April 2017 | Image: Robin Savage