We are informed that Jackinabox Productions’ adaption of Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs Christopher and His Kind had to be renamed. It is now called Berlin on request of the Isherwood estate, but this is not necessarily a bad thing; in some respect the focus is more on the city that inspires, drives, and ultimately rejects Isherwood. In this, the stories of the characters in the city become richer, as do the ways Berlin is brought to life.
Isherwood decided to move to Berlin in 1929, and the resulting production springs from his account of the ten years he spent there. We see Isherwood, played by a charismatic and capable John Askew, make his way through the gay scene of Berlin, his journey running parallel with the rise of the Nazi party. It’s certainly a story rooted in the city, and Kit Baumer’s lighting design is key in bringing this to life. A juxtaposition of natural lighting with harsh, dim blues and pinks brings to us the unreal quality of Isherwood’s Berlin. Also integral is the sound used, particularly the period music – but, that being said, often music trails off at the end of scenes, awkward and unfinished. Similarly, the use of recorded voice-over to illustrate Isherwood writing his memoirs sounds clunky, and, although used to distinguish past from present, really only does to detract from the professionalism of the production.
The fact that the piece takes a while to get into the swing of things might be down to this, as it lends itself to the disjointed, slow opening of the play. This is much improved when Askew starts performing Isherwood’s narrative in monologue form. At this point, the sticky but necessary exposition makes way for a far more engaging half of the production. Excellent performances come from David William Bryan’s Wystan Auden (yes, that Auden), who in his sympathetic and solid performance acts as an excellent foil to Askew’s Isherwood, and Molly Lynch, who, aside from showcasing an incredible singing voice, manages to portray the flippant and energetic Jean Ross without becoming irritating, and even creating considerable pathos around her character.
The movement in the piece – and there’s a lot of it – is only successful on occasion. Several samey dance-like movement sequences are used to express situations without words, but they are seldom pulled off, and most of the time seem a little unnecessary. They do fit better with the production than attempts at comedy, which are completely amiss. Schoolgirls with beards, angry German men in sparkly dressing-gowns, and a clown that tries his hand at healing all detract from the more simplistic, effecting moments of the piece. The narrative of the production focuses on Berlin and the way it affects Isherwood, but both of these things are detracted from by these ill-fitting attempts at comedy, which the production is competent enough without.
Although from time to time it feels as if director Katherine Timms has gone out of her way to make the production seem alternative, Berlin really hits the nail on the head during a scene that takes place at the sexual institute. With parodies of pornographic artwork, thumping dance music, and the whole ensemble working brilliantly together, we are entertained with exactly the right tone for this new interpretation of Isherwood’s text; when the production achieves this, it does not need attempts at comedy or constant movement work. It is perfectly capable of holding its own, and, with its well-sketched characters and hazy portrayal of Berlin, entertaining and moving in the process.
Berlin is played at The Space. For more information see The Space’s website.