Rendezvous in Bratislava  – Battersea Arts Centre, London

Writer: Miriam Sherwood

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

Miriam Sherwood’s grandparents threw the biggest parties in the darkest times. Surviving the Nazis in the Second World War, and then surviving the political purges of the 1970s, Sherwood’s grandparents managed to remain in Slovakia for decades before they were forced to flee to Munich. Rendezvous in Bratislava is Sherwood’s attempt to recreate one of her grandparents’ infamous living room parties. Fortunately, she’s also brought along a bottle of Slovakian vodka.

Sherwood never knew her grandfather as he died before she was born, but when she was clearing up her grandmother’s house she came across a huge archive which has brought her closer to him. He was a famous writer of cabaret shows in Bratislava from the 1930s to the 1970s, and he left copious notes on all his shows. He’s also the author of a series of autobiographies, and, very revealingly, a book of 1, 001 jokes. Using all these sources, Sherwood tells the story of her grandfather, Laco Kalina, and her search for her own theatrical origins.

Frustratingly for Sherwood, Laco’s autobiographies were written thematically rather than chronologically, but she puts his life in order through cabaret skits and PowerPoint Lectures. One of Laco’s suggestions for successful cabaret shows is that the lines between the performers and the audience should be blurred, and Sherwood follows this advice. Weaving through the audience, who are sat at cabaret tables, she hands out shots of alcohol to us at the start of the show, and later we are invited on stage –a representation of Laco’s living room – to drink champagne.

Helping Sherwood tell Laco’s story are musicians and singers Thom Andrewes and Will Gardner who, in their original songs, bring something of the 1930s to the show. Sherwood is also aided by some very talented members of the audience, and together they provide glimpses of what life was like in Bratislava for Laco and his family. Like the best cabarets, the audience never knows what is going to happen next in Rendezvous in Bratislava, which means there is never a dull moment in its 100-minute running time.

And like the best cabarets, there’s a happy ending too, and it’s impossible not to be drawn into the passion of the performers, Sherwood especially. She may show signs of nerves, but this makes her real, and we never doubt the veracity of her story. It could do with some tidying here and there; for instance, there’s a strange point when the story is presented out of chronological order and a few times the story needs more clarity, but otherwise, it’s a glorious evening. If only all family histories were as entertaining.

Runs until 24 November 2018 | Image: Contributed

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