Albert Speer, Andrea McKenzie, Ben Blow, Conspiracy Theories, David Taylor, Edinburgh Fringe, Erwin Rommel, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hollow Earth, Jonathan Whiteside, Madeleine McGirk, Paradise in the Vault, Reality Funds Theatre, Sean Langtree, Theatre Review
[The following contains spoilers.]
Reality Funds Theatre’s “Vichy Goings On” is written by Ben Blow and it has just finished its run at Paradise in the Vault. A spoiler warning might be over-assiduous by this point, but sometimes shows are restaged after the Fringe. It always discomforts me to think of plays as if they have died.
It is the Cold War and Albert Ogilvy (Sean Langtree) is a “hardboiled” British secret agent who might know the whereabouts of some missing Vichy gold. An extravagantly French femme fatale (Andrea McKenzie), a Soviet submarine commander (Madeleine McGirk), and Erwin Rommel (Jonathan Whiteside), now alive and the leader of the Nazi diaspora in Antarctica, are all on Ogilvy’s trail. “Vichy Goings On” is soon on an insatiable flight of fancy, and one that will land unexpectedly in that classic “hollow Earth” conspiracy theory.
Despite its obvious junk status, this conspiracy theory has featured in fiction by Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne, so it has a dim kind of intellectual lineage. I do hope that Ben Blow isn’t a pseudonym, for his name is perfect for a comic writer who has a fine eye for only the stupidest, wackiest conspiracy theories. Some choice cuts are duly served up to us in this play. The stupider a plot device seems, the more probable it is that some post-nervous-breakdown academic somewhere has written a series of books about it.
The acting is wonderfully madcap, though Langtree is set apart and his confused, outraged face will be pelted with everything in the play. The strength of “Vichy Goings On” is that it is not tempted into conventionally parodying the James Bond franchise (although that the female assassin talks to her gun is a detail that Ian Fleming would have relished). The play still feels too busy or brilliant – there are so many jokes that, rather like the homicidal Veronique, it will kill more times than influenza. There is perhaps a fearfulness in the writing that a Fringe audience might not connect with some of the more dazzling, complicated ironies. Henceforth, a few easier jokes – some mucking about with a polar bear at the Antarctic and a weak Hitler cameo – are flung to the pit. I would have edited this play far more single-mindedly and just asked the audience to take it or leave it.
The punning title “Vichy Goings On” might promise a brainless farce, though there is actually a cleverer subtext to this. The uber-Führer (David Taylor) who is waiting at the end of this story must no doubt, like H P Lovecraft’s most horrific monsters, smell of fish.
This play possibly resembles the “nice Nazis” at the Antarctic in being insanely courageous and awesomely racist. The story’s American, French and German stereotypes are so crude and brave that they are genuinely a little shocking. At one point Rommel maintains that he doesn’t know anything about the death camps, before winking gleefully like someone who is insisting that he hasn’t eaten all of the strawberry ones in the Cadbury’s Roses. It is a nice incongruity that this play cannot be bothered with Hitler and that it saves all of its abuse for Nazis who are traditionally deemed to be sympathetic, such as Rommel and the architect Speer. Blow is on stage as a dopey American, a Speer with a cockney accent (don’t ask…), and, finally, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the history of theatre, I doubt that Roosevelt can have ever appeared so inglorious. This Roosevelt is crasser than Trump and more of a megalomaniac than Hitler. I only wish that there had been some American patriots in the audience. It always discomforts me to think of plays as if they have died – cannot we crowdfund a hell-raising, post-Fringe tour of Arizona for this production?