The first professional revival in over 30 years of David Pinner’s The Potsdam Quartet marks the beginning of a new season at Jermyn Street Theatre under artistic director Anthony Biggs. The play follows the true story of the Griller Quartet as they play the Potsdam Conference of 1945, and depicts friendships in turmoil as the group comes close to disbanding. Whilst my opinions of the acting and direction were generally strong, for me the play as a whole was marred by some very strange writing and a massively unsatisfying ending that left me wishing more had been made of what could have been a suspenseful and engaging narrative.
The play was carried by a group of very fine actors, whose consistent and grounded portrayals were at times impressive and compelling. Stefan Bednarczyk as John Healey performed charismatically throughout, and the strength of his portrayal really showed itself in the feeling that sinister thoughts were continually present in his mind. In spite of his subordinate rank in the group, there was a chilling sense of his being completely in control of everyone around him, and being able to pull strings behind the scenes to bring them all down. Michael Matus as the central figure Aaron Green was also particularly impressive, holding the show together at times when the writing floundered, with his nuanced reactions and sharp wit.
If the programme notes are anything to go by, this was clearly a very popular piece once upon a time, having been performed professionally throughout the 1970s and 1980s in various media. To current audiences, however, it is not always easy to see why this is; much of the play could easily be described as bland and boring, and despite good acting, there is no saving some moments.
The first act is quite dry and not much happens. This would be fine were there a stronger build of tension or something more obviously happening under the surface of what the audience sees, however the script does not make enough of moments of intrigue which have the potential to be highly suspenseful. For example, the build up to the reveal of cellist Douglas’s (Daniel Crowder) debilitating Parkinson’s could have been much more important to the story had it been referenced more frequently or with more poignancy in the writing. Equally the decision to make Douglas’s shaking sporadic and exaggerated – to the point where it almost became comical – rather than constant and subtle was slightly misplaced and detracted from the potential intensification of his condition prior to his confession.
The second act was a hundred times better than the first; the characters were well-written, the humour better-placed, the story more suspenseful. Better material massively increased my enjoyment of the show. However in this act the acting worsened a little, perhaps because of the additional challenges of the script. More emotional moments were lost as the actors could not believably achieve their characters’ heightened states and there was a lack of balance between subtlety and over-acting. In addition moments of stage combat were quite cringey and unrealistic as performers just stood on stage shaking each other, not seeming as committed to the moment as they previously had been. The material also let the act down in places, especially the ridiculous upbeat-ness of the ending, which felt as if it had been tacked on simply so as not to leave the audience with negative thoughts as they left the theatre.
On the whole this was a solid production of an underwhelming play; the reasoning behind this being a little-performed work was quickly brought to light, but the actors were clearly talented and the creative team most likely would have produced something very special with any more stimulating play.
The Potsdam Quartet is playing the Jermyn Street Theatre until 23 November. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.