Director and father of a disabled child, Stephen Unwin, speaks from the heart with his incendiary debut play, All Our Children which opened last night at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre.
His fury and indignation rages through every line of dialogue, his abhorrence all too evident at a brutal regime that targeted vulnerable youngsters.
All My Children is the chilling story of a Nazi campaign to eradicate disabled children from Germany’s golden future during World War II.
Hitler launched the T4 programme after being approached by a farmer and his wife at the start of the war, who begged him to put to sleep their blind and disabled five-month-old son.
The babe was given a lethal injection, paving the way for a campaign that saw the systematic annihilation of up to 300,000 mentally and physically handicapped children and young adults.
Hitler deemed that they led “lives unworthy of life,” costing the state a small fortune to keep them while never being able to make a contribution to society.
He launched a PR campaign to convince parents that it wasn’t cost effective to keep them alive when the poor were starving. In reality it was his opening gambit in creating his Master Race.
Only one man dared to stand up to the Führer, and that was the aristocratic Bishop Clemens August von Galen, the Lion of Munster, who ignored his own safety to speak out against Kinder-Euthanasie.
Unwin’s first play is largely fictional but based on true events. It’s January 1941 in Winkelheim, Germany, at a clinic, run by Dr Victor Franz (Colin Tierney), which cares for children suffering a range of disabilities.
Three months earlier Franz put aside the Hippocratic oath and, perhaps through fear or indoctrination, began drawing up lists of residents deemed suitable for the T4 initiative. Lives were decided with the monthly flick of a red pencil against inmates’ names. Some were only babies.
Franz, dying of lung cancer, goes along with the party line, telling himself that their disposal, quietly gassed after a day-trip to another facility, was for the good of the nation.
And, should he waiver in his beliefs, then he feels the intimidating presence of the ruthless SS officer, Eric Schmidt, who is acting as his admin officer to ensure quotas are rigorously met.
It’s not until he is confronted, first by an incensed mother demanding answers about her son’s sudden death and then, later that night, by the Bishop, that Franz begins to question his motives.
Unwin’s furious polemic preaches compassion, arguing, rightly, that all children deserve the right to life. His beliefs are echoed in every word spoken by David Yelland’s outraged Bishop von Galen who storms into the doctor’s office demanding an end to the initiative.
Yelland gives a powerful turn as the voice of conscience and right. “This isn’t a clinic, it’s a charnel house!” he seethes. “We owe a duty of care to those who are weaker than us! How can we do this to our fellow human beings?”
Tierney’s tempered, understated and nuanced performance, as Franz, is in sharp contrast to the storm of emotion coming at him from all sides.
You shudder at Edward Franklin’s cold and committed Schmidt, understand the feelings of maid, Martha (Rebecca Johnson), a mother torn between her faith and the demands of the Third Reich, and empathise with the distraught Elizabetta Pabst (the excellent Lucy Speed) whose faith in the state to care for her epileptic son had been shamefully exploited.
There are occasions when Unwin, the director, needs to be a bit tougher on Unwin, the playwright. The production is burdened with melancholic musical accompaniment from Schubert, which it could do without, and its structure is fairly rigid with characters coming on, one at a time, to confront Franz with their suspicions.
But All My Children is still a remarkable, deeply moving, and profoundly tragic play. Playing at Jermyn Street Theatre until June 3.
All My Children is a remarkable, deeply moving and profoundly tragic play with writer and director Stephen Unwin drawing powerful performances from an extraordinarily good ensemble.