I Am a Camera tells the story of a young Christopher Isherwood (Harry Melling) and his struggle to follow up his not-so-recently published novel as he lives in 1930s Germany. He has kept himself hidden while trying to write, holing up in a flat that he cannot afford; the play opens with Isherwood asking his landlady Fraulein Schneider (Joanne Howarth) if he can move into a smaller room. When Isherwood’s friend Fritz (Freddie Capper) visits him, he brings along showgirl Sally Bowles (Rebecca Humphries), who discovers that Christopher’s room is now up for rent and moves in, igniting a friendship between the two. It also sparks Isherwood’s writing and he starts observing the people around him, or as he puts it so elegantly, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
As the show progresses, we see Isherwood’s routine rudely interrupted by the people he has come to observe, from his promiscuous new best friend sending him on a whirlwind, dropping bombshell after bombshell and bringing a mysterious American called Clive (Oliver Rix) into his life, who fills the pair with empty promises of showing them the world. His once wonderful landlady has become hateful towards Jews, making Isherwood angry that the Nazis have changed her so much. Isherwood’s newly revealed Jewish friend Fritz starts falling in love with Christopher’s Jewish English student Natalia (Sophie Dickson), who fails to be scared by the Nazis and stands up to them at a street rally.
If you come to this play thinking you’re going to see glitz and glamour like the musical that was inspired by I am a Camera, you might be a little disappointed. The show focuses on the reality of these wide-eyed dreamers, who are longing for success but stuck in a one grimy room in Berlin. It’s a subtle juxtaposition made by director Anthony Lau, breaking the wall the characters have created. We are meant to believe they are happy in their bedsits but in reality they are walking in, in early hours of the morning, worse for wear and desperately trying to get money to live. The quote said at the beginning of the show suddenly made sense – we are the cameras observing.
Even though the show is staged in a confined space, the acting from the small ensemble was magnificent and at times moving. Harry Melling has the ability to show his character breaking down without making it a spectacle; he’s almost still when his character is falling apart and realises that everything he knew was a lie. In contrast, Rebecca Humphries plays the over the top showgirl Sally with her emotions going from sobbing to laughing and joking – it takes a excellent actress to nail that kind of emotion properly. An honourable mention goes to Sherry Baines, who plays Sally’s mother and manages to nail the mother that everyone loves to hate in the few minutes she is on stage.
It is quite sad that John Van Druten’s I Am a Camera is more famous for the inspiration it provided for Cabaret, because many seem to forget this wonderful poignant play based on The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. If you want to see a faithful and wonderfully-acted version of one of the most famous coming of age stories then you must see I am a Camera – you will not be let down.
I Am a Camera is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 22 September. For more information and tickets please see the Southwark Playhouse website.