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In 1938 two German-American teenagers meet, fall briefly in love and embrace fascist ideology in a Nazi summer holiday camp in New York state. US writer Bess Wohl’s play is based in fact and reminds us how swiftly and easily people can be radicalized. It’s superbly performed by Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon, but it’s a challenging, talky piece that sometimes feels too on-the-nose.
When Thallon’s character, Him, first flirts with Ferran’s Her, he has to shout over an oom-pah band. He’s the cocky, bright-eyed veteran explaining the camp’s mission to promote “German values” in the face of growing US hostility, and excusing Hitler’s craziness as “just his style”. She’s the gawky and self-loathing novice, though the balance of power in their relationship soon shifts, especially once they obey the instruction to “be social”. That is, to procreate and multiply the master-race.
It’s grimly fascinating to learn that there really was a Hitler Street on Long Island, on land that could only be owned by those of German heritage, and that youngsters were groomed there to be agents of a foreign power. Arguably we face levels of extremism today as frightening of those in the 1930s, but Wohl’s attempt to draw parallels between then and now can be heavy-handed.
Ferran’s character has already been damaged and misled, so is seen to be more susceptible to indoctrination. Elected to be the camp’s Youth Leader, she embarks on a Hitleresque rant in which she promises to make America great again. Later, she tells of being cared for by a couple who turn out to be Jewish. Both characters constantly mention the fact that it’s 1938 to ram home what’s to come.
Katy Rudd’s production finesses the clunkier parts of the dialogue, but inevitably strands Ferran and Thallon at opposite ends of the largely empty stage for long stretches of the action. Rosanna Vize’s set consists chiefly of a slatted wooden backdrop on which Tal Rosner projects Leni Riefenstahl-style videos of frolicking youths. Lighting designer Rob Casey subtly evokes changes of mood and scene. But it’s the actors you’ll want to see this for.
Ferran is utterly convincing as a girl half her age, a bundle of awkward tics and flinches, from which something terrifying emerges. Thallon is all breezy Aryan confidence and physical swagger until his character faces up to both his true nature and his failings. Both were nominated at the start of their careers for the Evening Standard’s Emerging Talent award, and it’s been a professional delight to see the range and depth they’ve demonstrated since, not least here.
Old Vic, until 30 Oct, oldvictheatre.com