Desperate people are forced to do desperate things during wartime and none more so than the Becquet family who refused to leave their home in Guernsey during the Nazi occupation.
Moira Buffini’s 1997 drama, Gabriel, has been revived for a UK tour. I opened on Friday at Richmond Theatre, and this tense, haunting play should be put on everyone’s to-see list.
Not only does it herald the return to the stage of the superb Paul McGann, who chills to the bone as a depraved Gernman officer, but we also have a top-notch cast that includes Belinda Lang and Robin Morrissey plus relative newcomer Venice van Someren who gives a very convincing turn as mischievous child.
Regional theatre is frequently starved of top quality drama with venues, understandably, attracting big audiences with a raft of touring musicals.
But Gabriel is well worth the price of a ticket. Kate McGregor’s confident direction delivers nearly two hours of engrossing wartime melodrama that suggests a mystic influence and delivers an edge-of-your seat, nail-biting story of intrigue and suspense.
Lang’s Jeanne Becquet has been ousted from her comfortable Guernsey home and into a ramshackle farmhouse to make way for the Nazi invaders.
Starving and desperate, she alienates herself from her friends and neighbours by cosying up to the local commandant, providing him with sex in exchange for safety and security for her family.
But her future is thrown into disarray when the commander is replaced by Paul McGann’s quietly terrifying Von Pfunz, a man who writes poems about concentration camps and makes everyone’s skin creep with an unnerving reptilian smile.
Young Estelle Becquet (van Someren) is found at the opening of the play on her knees, drawing a chalk “square of power” on the floor and mumbling incantations, asking for a divine help in saving her family and ridding island of Germans.
It’s all tosh, of course, but, moments later, Lily, the Jewish wife of Jeanne’s missing RAF pilot son, finds a naked man washed up on the beach.
Lily and Estelle struggle to bring the almost dead man into the house. They give him the name Gabriel and pray he survives.
But who is this mystery man who, it transpires, has total amnesia but can speak fluent German? Is he English, a missing SS officer, or a more cosmic entity summoned by Estelle?
As the revolting Von Pfunz presses himself on Jeanne will the stranger, who has fits and talks about falling from a great height, provide the answer?
All this may seem a little familiar to Belinda Lang who starred in the 2014 stage production of Ladies in Lavender which was about two women finding a man washed up on their beach suffering from total amnesia.
But she is always hugely watchable. Here she doesn’t entirely win your sympathy, her character ambiguously both selfish and protective of her girls.
Here is a play with strong women characters but who are, nontheless, at the mercy of Paul McGann’s wonderfully nuanced Nazi. Von Pfunz does his best to endear himself but his smile and amiable manner belies a monster.
The lofty Robin Morrissey, as Gabriel, cuts a dashing and heroic figure. Dressed in white, cast-offs from Jeanne’s husband, he could almost be a fallen angel, and one who wastes no time in comforting the lonely, abandoned, Lily.