The story of Captain Robert Campbell, a captured British officer who, during World War I, was granted leave to visit his dying mother on the promise that he would return, is a startling, quite unbelievable tale. Dear Mr Kaiser’s Hour Lot Theatre are at pains throughout its retelling to remind us that they aren’t historians and that some of the scenes are imagined for dramatic purposes. At times, for the sake of clarity and emotion however, I wish they were historian and that a more measured account was told.
We first meet James Wintergrove’s Cpt. Campbell as he is being reprimanded for his forty-ninth botched escape attempt by Matthew Jameson’s towering yet surprisingly soft German POW camp commandant. Campbell tackles this role well, his cadence rich and regal along with a defined, recruitment poster physique. This relationship between the two would-be enemies is interesting, both prepared to play cat and mouse forever as long as it keeps them away from the horrors of war. However, the broad nationalistic brushstrokes with which both of the men are drawn are distracting, especially Jameson’s commandant whose German accent and floppy demeanour feel torn straight from a Carry On film rather than real history.
When Campbell is finally taken pity on, through news of his dying mother overseas, he is granted leave to write a letter to the German Kaiser that quite extraordinarily sets a chain of events in motion allowing him a reprieve of two weeks. The negotiation scenes between the bumbling Wilhelm and Campbell are arguably the high point, intelligently staged by placing the two facing out, together, their negotiations penetrate forward into the audience and tension is certainly palpable. Again, though, accents and repetitive comedy mire momentum, with Wilhelm’s inexplicably English accented son, Willy, repeatedly being called “a little prick” until someone laughs.
Odd choices are made off the stage, too. Rather than utilising sound effects, such as the charging of a train or the distant thud of bombs, various actors beat box and imitate on a microphone at the side of the stage. In the hands of talented verbal contortionists this would be fine, but hearing “pew pew” when we should be hearing the clatter of the trenches is a ridiculous move that further distorts the tension.
Dear Mr Kaiser certainly has an extraordinary tale on his hands, with Campbell’s journey home treated with skilful visuals to emphasise his Homeric feat. It’s just the constant reliance on stereotypes as well as poor soundscaping that make this incredible slice of history even more unbelievable.
Dear Mr Kaiser is at the Bedlam Theatre (Venue 49) until 24 August. For more information and tickets visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.