Laughter and pain with the Gnädiges Fräulein

Annabel Banks 1 February 2008

The Gnädiges Fräulein, ADC Theatre, 30th January- 2nd February, 23:00

Reviewer Annabel Banks

4 Stars

Tennessee Williams wrote a play whilst on drugs? That sounded like something worth watching. How would his usual recipe of tragic heroines and stifled desperation be altered by the addition of some mind-bending substances? The answer is more complicated than you might first think when you hear of Polly and Molly smoking a joint on stage and attempting to engage a pelican (or ‘Cocaloony bird’) in conversation.

So what’s going on? Well, there is humour here – a lot. Director Ollie Evans, (skilfully twirling a baton labelled ‘Theatre of the Absurd’) is comfortable with pausing action in order to give the audience a big laugh, and also constructs moments when conventional barriers between theatre and theatre-goers are ripped (or kicked) down with a knowing wink. The two leads are obviously delighted by their grotesquery, and were therefore delightful to watch as they revelled in it: pulling faces, screeching, losing their skirts after a quick tumble – and all the while asserting their status as ‘ladies of the South’. They kept up their energy, (and their accents,) admirably though they hardly left the stage.

But there is also pain in this play. Dark moments of mutilation and exploitation are scattered amongst the laughter like drops of blood on a porch. ‘Sorrow makes for sincerity,’ said Williams through the mouth of Blanche Dubois. Though this production throws the comedy hard at the audience, it also balances the sincere tragedy of the Fräulein, through a strong performance by Natalie Kesterton. With limited dialogue, the Fräulein is a character more talked-about than talking, but the horror of her trapped helplessness underlies the whole piece, and her wounding is conveyed emotionally through cries that are hard to hear after so much laughter.

Pacing became a slight problem towards the end, as I began to feel shouted at rather than performed for, but that may have been a script rather than a production flaw. The addition to the cast of an on-stage Oompa band punctuated the action nicely, and their permanence on stage was not distracting- in fact they added to the overall feel of the set.

Go to the ADC, have a few beers and watch this play. Remember that the inability to change their role is what makes tragic characters so affecting. But if, after all the laughter, you want to storm the stage and rescue then Fräulein, text me. I’ll meet you by the stairs.