Nachtland: this black comedy about Hitler’s art is the hit the Young Vic needs

Jane Horrocks in Nachtland, at the Young Vic
Jane Horrocks in Nachtland, at the Young Vic - Ellie Kurttz

On clearing out the attic of your recently deceased father, you find a humble watercolour of a church and country scene that’s revealed to bear the signature “A Hitler”.

Could it be that “A Hitler”? You consult an expert, who affirms that yes, very likely, it’s the work of the toothbrush-moustached monster, produced during his struggling-artist phase. Do you stash it away, try and sell it, destroy it, or generally ruminate and wrangle with your fellow family members as to the best course of action?

Munich-born playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s canny, if not fully achieved dark comedy – first seen at the Schaubühne, Berlin in 2022, and getting its UK premiere at the directorial hands of Patrick Marber – contains a lot of wrangling, as those options spring to acquisitive, conflicted mind. It’s a plausible enough scenario – Hitler’s paintings do crop up, and can fetch ethically dubious sums, even in Germany (which permits sales when the work is untainted by Nazi symbols).

Watching the depiction of the dilemma as it engulfs the deceased’s son and daughter, and their respective partners, from the cosy vantage of London, we’re afforded the schadenfreude of seeing Germans wrestling with the prospect of a gain that they know perpetuates their worst national shame. The painting’s value is written in blood and indeed increases the more they’re willing and able to implicate their ancestors; there are Nazi skeletons in the cupboard which could bolster the work’s authenticity and appeal.

Still, we’re hardly exempt from the frisson of culpability in what at times feels like a Mel Brooks spin on Antiques Roadshow (there’s even a Hitler salute brought on by a Tetanus infection). It’s not just that the script (translated by Maja Zade) utilises direct address, as the actors pace a patchily floored stage-area before the crumbling façade of a house. A lot of the laughs, too, are guilty pleasures.

Nachtland: 'The drama becomes a descent into the moral abyss.'
Nachtland: 'The drama becomes a descent into the moral abyss.' - Ellie Kurttz

“With the best will in the world, I can’t see a swastika,” glibly observes John Heffernan’s twitchy son, Philipp, as he squints at the “find”. There’s even a discombobulating double-take as you realise the fashion-victim art-expert, who coos over the work without a qualm, is Jane “Bubble from Ab Fab” Horrocks; she talks about pigments and brush-strokes with clipped assurance, hits the deadpan target with chill accuracy: “He [Hitler] still provokes strong emotions.”

Sure, it’s doodling and schematic in a way that’s not miles from Hitler’s own mediocre craftsmanship. Crass Philipp is usefully married to Judith (Jenna Augen) – Jewish and predictably outraged at any profit being made from the work, while his resentful sibling (Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Nicola) launches into diatribes about Israel which, while validly sketching a self-serving and anti-Semitic nature, are still there, you feel, to up the outrage factor.

The drama, further twisted into a Faustian nightmare by the sinister and unsavoury presence of an art-collector (Angus Wright), becomes a descent into the moral abyss. Alas, von Mayenburg arrives, via incest, at overkill, as if angling for trigger-warnings über alles. Even so, the brisk evening holds our queasy, amused attention and offers a haunting reminder that Hitler once saw beauty in the world, and tried to capture it, however ineptly, before madly deciding to lay it waste.

Until April 20. Tickets: 020 7922 2922;