Once Upon A Time In Nazi Occupied Tunisia: Almeida Theatre

Once Upon A Time at The Almeida

Pierro Niel-Mee (Victor) and Adrian Edmondson (Grandma) in Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia at the Almeida. - Credit: Marc Brenner

"Any Nazi with prospects is in Europe. They only send the animals to Africa," is the sneering observation made by the loquacious Nazi Commander - fondly nicknamed Grandma by his ‘Blondes.’

Adrian Edmondson plays the role to the hilt in this premiere of Josh Azouz’s brutally comic play. The historical territory is fascinating: life in Tunisia before and after the six-month Nazi occupation in 1942. Azouz confidently weaves in everyday details to convey the complexities of a society made up of Cosmopolitan Europeans, Jews who suffered anti-Semitism even before the invasion, and a native Muslim population who faced institutional discrimination under French colonial rule.

Once Upon A Time at The Almeida Theatre

Once Upon a Time...at the Almeida. Yasmin Paige (Loys) and Laura Hanna (Faiza). - Credit: Marc Brenner

The story revolves around the fate of two young married couples – one Jewish and the other Arab - who have been close friends for years. Two beautifully lit flashbacks to their more carefree youth generate some of the most engaging moments. Topics include the relative merits of Arabic music or the significance of Jews suddenly eating cuttlefish.

The convergence of two storylines creates a muddle: a Romeo and Juliet tale of thwarted love between spirited Jewess Loys [Yasmin Paige] and principled Arab Youssef [Ethan Kai] rendered impossible given Youssef is married to Loy’s best friend Faiza [Laura Hanna] and forced to guard Loy’s husband Victor [Pierro Niel-Mee] in a labour camp, alongside a sinister plot featuring Grandma and his lascivious plan for Loys.

Once Upon A Time at The Almeida

Ethan Kai (Youssef) and Pierro Niel-Mee (Victor). - Credit: Marc Brenner

A hotchpotch of genres and influences ebb and flow: including a wonderfully charged Shavian debate between Grandma and Loys; shades of 'Allo 'Allo in the strutting Nazi villain although there are no cartoon German accents here as Edmonson’s Nazi is a plummy, debonair incarnation, and B movie melodrama with Grandma being bundled into a box which forms part of Max Johns’ oddly sterile, Ikea-style set after being drugged with sleeping tablets, before popping up repeatedly to make garrulous comebacks.

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Entertaining? Yes, up to a point, but the lack of clarity means the effect is odd, troubling even, though not in a productive way. Director Eleanor Rhode brings out strong performances from her glamorous couples and Edmondson is formidably charismatic. If only the tone and plot would settle. 3/5 stars.

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