About to end its all too brief stint at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Taken at Midnight is a gripping thought-provoking production that is as enthralling as it is moving.
Set in 1930s Germany, Mark Hayhurst‘s new play tells the true story of Hans Litten, the man who had the courage (arrogance?) to reduce Hitler to size in the witness stand at the trial of SA men in 1931. Hitler’s anger and subsequent revenge comes from him being cut down to human size by Litten; Hitler wanted to be a deity, above reproach or mistake, but that day Litten exposed his humanness and for that the lawyer pays a heavy price.
But hope is not entirely lost, Litten has a vocal cheerleader in the world outside of his concentration camps. His mother, Irmgard, beautifully played by Penelope Wilton, pushes her way into the office of Gestapo chief Dr Conrad to campaign for her son’s release. Soon her visits are frequent, the pair of them enjoying cups of tea as Irmgard’s increasingly angry pleas get bolder.
Taken at Midnight is full of emotion without being mawkish, intelligent without being aloof, Hayhurst’s script is a highlight in a play full of them. I seen several plays recently where words are seemingly thrown out in the vain hope that they will magically slot together and make sense and it was wonderful to hear Hayhurst’s thoughtful, clever script. The play is riveting with an easy rhythm that allows the actors to tell the story without melodrama. That’s not to say emotions are subdued, if anything Taken at Midnight is more intense because it’s not all hysterical hand-wringing.
Competing in the ‘best of…’ category is Penelope Wilton (this week nominated for best actress at the Olivier Awards), whose Irmgard is, in contrast to the turmoil of the story, so stoical and still, her fists clenched beside her body, her jawline holding her anguish. She’s brilliant in the role, beautifully composed, but her determination and courage are never in doubt.
Wilton’s not alone, the whole cast are excellent; Martin Hutson is charming as Hans Litten, capturing his brilliance and the arrogance that accompanied it, while John Light as Dr Conrad reimagines the Gestapo chief as an ordinary man, playing him as a human being not a cardboard cutout, goosestepping monster.
Stories set in Nazi Germany, particularly those that tell true stories of individuals suffering in concentration camps can be relentlessly grim, but Taken at Midnight, while it won’t have you rolling in the aisles, has genuine moments of humour. Wilton, who honed her comic timing in Ever Decreasing Circles, a sitcom I was semi-obsessed with in my childhood (Howard and Hilda’s matching jumpers!), puts it to excellent use here. She’s not playing for laughs, but the amusing lines help make this story even more human.
Jonathan Church’s subtle direction enhances the horror of the final few minutes of Taken by Midnight – there were gasps from the audience at the events before curtain call, no mean feat for a true story.
by Suzanne Elliott
Taken at Midnight | Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until Saturday 14 March 2015