Connections is the National Theatre’s festival of new plays for young people. This is the festival’s twentieth year, and the 2015 programme saw 10 new plays debuted over six nights, with each being performed by a different troupe of young actors aged 13-19. All of the plays are short at under 90 minutes each, and I saw two plays concurrently on the Olivier stage: The Edelweiss Pirates and The Accordion Shop.
The Edelweiss Pirates, written by Ayub Khan Din, focuses on the eponymous group of teenagers who formed in Nazi Germany to oppose the government, as well as the rules and restrictions of the Hitler Youth. Not knowing what the plays were about before I came, I must admit I was a little disappointed when I saw the Swastika flags hanging down from the Olivier ceiling. We are so inundated with Holocaust films and plays that there is very little new to say, and I was dubious as to what this short piece could offer that I had not seen before.
However, when the play started I was pleasantly surprised. The very first line of the play was a joke! Now this was something I hadn’t seen before – a humorous play about the Holocaust. That may sound like an oxymoron, or perhaps just extremely distasteful, but I actually thought it was rather fitting. The Edelweiss Pirates were essentially a group of teenagers who wanted to be able to mix with the opposite sex and rebel, just as all teenagers do. Whilst this group of young people lived in an incomparably horrific part of history, their teenage spirit and whims were the same, and it was interesting to see Nazi Germany from this unique viewpoint.
The play began in this teenage rebellious spirit. Members of the Edelweiss Pirates joked as they teased their Hitler Youth leader and graffitied anti-Nazi slogans on the walls. But it soon took a turn for the serious when a Jewish member of the Pirates was forced into hiding, and other members had to turn their backs on their pro-Nazi parents. From here on in it became depressingly predictable as the Pirates became almost a sub-plot against a general background of the horrors of the Holocaust. And it wasn’t subtle either – statistics of the numbers of dead Jews were shouted aggressively to the audience, and horrific stories were told in teary monologues. The young cast did very well, but they would have been better served to carry on with their comic beginnings, rather than the predictable shouty sadness into which the play settled.
The second play of the evening was The Accordion Shop by Cush Jumbo. Carrying on with the theme of teenage rebellion, this play focused on a teenage riot, which was clearly based on the London riots of 2011. Set on a run-down high street simply known as “the road”, it showed the build-up and aftermath of a teenage riot that started simply because a mass text was sent round. Like with the 2011 riots, the question on everybody’s lips is ‘why?’, and the play looked at the riots through the eyes of accordion shop owner Mr Ellody, who cannot understand why these young people’s energies are so misplaced.
The performances here were spot on, and special mention has to go Cashuana Holland who made a hilarious and very convincing old lady who had the audience in stitches. The play was funny and light-hearted, delving into more serious territory once the grave consequences of the riot were revealed, but with great subtlety and care that were well handled in the script and by the cast.
Connections ran at the National Theatre until 6 July. For more information, see the National Theatre Connections website.