La Malchance des Anglais, review of the Orange Tree Theater

Scottish playwright Pamela Carter has brushed the cobwebs of this strange corner of Anglo-German relations and shot an irreverent new play about what it means to be English.

Our narrators are three students from the Strand School in south London: the exuberant Eaton (Vinnie Heaven), the sharp Harrison (Hubert Burton) and the serious Lyons (Matthew Tennyson), the youngest. They’re on a walking vacation in the Black Forest, which is exciting because they’re 1) abroad and 2) allowed to call their teacher, Mr. Keast, “Keaty.” “When I think back to the boy I was two days ago…” Lyons, 13, says wistfully. He is a travelernow – an English boy representing his country in Nazi Germany, three years before World War II broke out.

Heaven, Burton and Tennyson (all shown below) the energy is contagious. “Adsum! they announce happily, ribbing and fake punching each other. It’s all ‘we’ this and ‘us’ that – there’s no room for individual thought in the Strandian world. In short interludes, they do calisthenics in unison while a female voice (Eva Magyar) tells fun facts about the Black Forest. Although there are only three, Oscar Toeman’s directing makes us feel the presence of the other 24, as well as the hero-revered Keaty. Like any good school trip, it’s packed with food: the boys snack on Babybels and satsumas, and Lyon is very picky about his cake arrangements.
The language is surprisingly modern: someone is called a “libtard”, and Eaton invites the citizens of Freiburg to “see us! “. It’s about a third into the 90-minute game when things start to go wrong. The house lights go out as a thunderstorm rolls in, Dan Balfour’s upbeat soundtrack warps and twists, the boys phase each other out. It’s as if the approaching tragedy is too devastating for the shape of the room to contain.

Harrison wonders if the fatal ordeal could have been avoided, but it’s clear from Burton’s tone that he’s just having fun. The idea that nearly 30 English schoolboys, suppressed within an inch of their lives and desperate to prove their uniquely English masculinity in Nazi Germany, would do something as embarrassing as give up in the face of a deadly storm is laughable. When the boys hold a plebiscite to try to climb the Schauinsland mountain, they raise their hands with such enthusiasm that for a moment it looks like they are giving Hitler salutes.

(LR) Matthew Tennyson, Vinnie Heaven and Hubert Burton in 'The Misfortune of the English' at the Orange Tree TheaterTennyson is an expert at appearing totally vulnerable while still holding something back from his characters to the audience. In fact, it’s as if all the actors do that: Heaven through cheeky charm and Burton through sheer bloody decency. Keaty’s guilt is never explicitly stated; it’s not necessary. The misfortune of the title comes to signify not only the tragic events experienced by the boys, but also the chauvinistic self-confidence that will not let their teacher (and therefore them too) admit a mistake or a defeat. In his program notes, Carter refers to the boys’ Anglicism as “a history deposited within them, nurtured and exploited by the political imperatives of the 19th and 20th centuries.” It is this story that condemns them, like a magnet that propels them towards the impassable mountain.

Harrison is the only one of our trio to have survived; it says in the program. But it seems a shame to highlight the death of the other two so soon. Surely you can count on the fact that most of your audience will not know the story you are telling. The play veers into weird territory down the home stretch and fails to quite get back on track. But it’s still devastating. How lucky we are to have a playwright like Carter.