Blonde Poison – Playground Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Gail Louw

Director: Fred Abrahamse

Playground Theatre’s five-week season celebrating the work of much admired and prestigiously productive writer Gail Louw kicks off with a production of her best-known monologue Blonde Poison. Based on the true story of German Jew turned Gestapo collaborator Stella Goldschlag, the exquisitely tuned piece boasts a powerful and highly affecting performance by leading South African actor Fiona Ramsay.

It is the late 1980s. Goldschlag, now a 71-year-old living on social security benefits faces the prospect of an unwelcome visit. Erstwhile Berlin schoolmate Peter, now a journalist, wants to find out why Stella became a “greifer” or “catcher” for the Gestapo. Her wartime role in exposing and denouncing Berlin’s underground Jews (known as U-boats to their Nazi pursuers) leads to the deaths of up to 3000 people. “How can you live with yourself?” a nagging and persistent offstage voice demands of her.

Drowning in self-righteous self-pity and talking to herself in the third person, Stella’s defence can more or less be summed up as “what would you have done?”. She adds by way of further vindication, “Everyone has to make a living” and “I’m guilty, because I’m beautiful and I survived”. Blue-eyed, with “a clean white Aryan smile” and curly blond hair she dismisses the friends and acquaintances she betrays to the death camps as proles with “big black hats”. “You look so not Jewish” is her favourite compliment, before admitting sotto voce that in a certain light she is “slightly Jewish”.

Yet Louw’s characterisation is layered, deft, and complex. Her Goldschlag, who thinks she appears “50, even 40 on a dark day” although “50-year olds don’t have teeth like mine”, is far from a one-dimensional villain. Stella has a knack for remembering names, numbers, and faces. The skill is handy if you need to rat out fellow Jews to the Gestapo, but handy too if you are desperate to find places to hide your much-loved ageing parents. She is very funny too, particularly in a riff on the ugliness of spinach stuck in teeth and the importance of strong, durable condoms in wartime. It is a perceptive, complex portrait that elicits some grudging sympathy until a further question is posed, “why did you carry on after your parents were deported?”.

Bedecked in a white evening gown and a white turban hat held together by a huge diamond broach, Ramsey plays Stella beautifully. On the surface a comically grotesque Marlene Dietrich figure: think promiscuous wise-cracking drag queen mashed up with wannabee society hostess. Underneath, a chillingly recognisable moral vacuum. “If you can, you do. If you can’t, you don’t cry” she says, with ice-cold candour. What would any of us do for a pass, an apartment, and the right not to wear a Jewish star? What indeed.

Runs until 3 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score.

Ambiguous wartime character study

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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