Friday, 22 September 2017

Theatre Review: Last Train To Auschwitz

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Play
Genre: Drama
Date: September 21 2017
Location: Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, England

Last Train To Auschwitz, which has just returned to Liverpool's Epstein Theatre, is on many occasions a harrowing, un-nerving and disturbing show to watch. And yet it is also extremely well-performed, bringing to life the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps in a way that few shows, films or television dramas have ever been able to achieve.

This is less a show and more a snapshot; almost like a recreation of events, rather than a presentation of highs and lows. Because the highs do not exist here; it is one low after another, as Last Train To Auschwitz focuses on a group of people whose lives have been drastically changed by the Nazi dictatorship led by Adolf Hitler, which has ultimately seen them transported by train to the most notorious concentration camp of them all in Auschwitz.

We meet two families, with one gypsy grandmother looking after two children named Karl and Anna, and another mother (Miriam, played by Crissy Rock) looking after her two daughters, one of whom - Rachel - has lost her mind due to the chaos caused by World War II. We also meet two sisters, Sarah and Ruth. Ruth is a famous movie star, whose Jewish heritage has nevertheless resulted in her being part of the cast heading to Auschwitz. All are Jewish or Gypsy, and though there are tense arguments, any lingering animosity is overcome by the sheer terror and fear of what is likely to happen to them, partly influenced by the abuse they receive, both verbally and physically, on the train journey alone.

Once they have arrived, things only get worse, with one horrifying incident after another defining their lives, essentially until they become too weak to fight back and die, as terrible as that sounds. The pain that these women and children feel gets worse and worse, with some choosing to risk it all for the small glimmer of hope that they might somehow escape the horrendous conditions they find themselves in. The intimidating presence of the Beast, and his assistant Gretchen (a Jewish lady herself who sides with the Nazis to save her own family from further torture), ensures that the victims continuously lose faith and hope, simply suffering as they slowly die.

Though the entire show is extremely sad and tough to watch, the saddest scenes come towards the end when we realise that only the grandmother managed to survive the ordeal, after allied forces came in to rescue the victims from the camps after the war ended, only to pass away herself suddenly. Though she reunites with those she met along the way in Heaven to close the performance, it is nevertheless a heavy toll to take on the emotions of the audience that this appalling situation, which these characters find themselves in solely because of their religious beliefs, literally has no happy ending for anyone involved. Worst of all is the knowledge that this and many experiences similar to this actually happened during World War II.

The use of still photographs as the background setting is powerful and speaks volumes without saying a word, as do the lack of additional scenery, the minimal props (benches, chairs, a table and a bed) and the lack of any background music. This creates a stark reality and immediately tells the audience that, as odd as this may sound, this is not a show that you will enjoy, but rather an educational experience which is impossible not to touch the emotions of those in attendance.

It was hard at times to make out some of what was being said. The dialogue wasn't always audible due to poor microphones; depending where on the stage that the characters were, some lines couldn't be picked up. Also, certain lines were spoken a little too quickly because, whilst all involved maintained German accents throughout, this led to moments where one couldn't understand what they were hearing. Also, the first half was surprisingly short at 35 minutes, which made the second half at almost 60 minutes a bit of a struggle to watch; a 45/45 split would have been more advisable.

Nevertheless, these minor issues can't take away the fact that this is a very compelling production. It was very interesting that people from three completely different backgrounds, with their own unique circumstances, all bringing them together, and bringing them closer to one another as they couldn't help but bond and care for one another through the torture they were going through. Each person's situations explained why they were on the train, and though they cared little for each other when they first met, they built up safety and support for one another, at times willingly taking punishment to prevent others from receiving such treatment, in particular the young children. It's ironic, but also very disheartening, that ultimately the only way that Miriam can protect her youngest daughter is to end her life herself.

The play portrayed the hopelessness and dread of the captives, but it also provided hope in demonstrating how their friendships became their survival technique. It was very well-acted, the story was easy to follow (partly due to the well-known historical nature of Auschwitz), and everybody involved was completely believable. Crissy Rock steals the show as Miriam with a heart-wrenching portrayal, a major contrast to her usual jolly and comedic self, and her rendition of Yiddishe Mama was very moving; however, all cast members should be proud of their performances.

It's an extremely tough show to watch, so it won't be for everybody, but if you can handle the dark and disturbing subject matter, this is well worth going to see, and it does end on a high note as the characters, now in Heaven, join in with the audience as they clap along to Hava Nagila.

If you want a real insight into what went on at Auschwitz, and a true understanding about what so many members of the German population were forced to endure during the Second World War, I highly recommend that you see this show.

Overall Rating: 8/10 - Very Good