A full house was crammed into the little space above the Old Red Lion pub, and jaunty 1940s music bopped along above the excited chatter of the crowd. The set was necessarily sparse: some crates, a chair, a hat-stand and a clothes rail, on which a grey jacket hung between several other garments, a red swastika peeping through. One of the actors sat already in place, and held a stillness and a silence as the audience fussed about and talked. Two girls in blue striped dresses and Jewish stars entered the space, and the performance began.
The play follows one of the lesser known stories of the Second World War – a love affair between a female Nazi officer and one of her female Jewish prisoners, the accomplished ballet dancer Lotte Rosner in the Neuengamme concentration camp. The details of the story are painful and incredible: when Lotte is moved to Bergen-Belsen, Anneliese Kohlmann, the Nazi officer, disguises herself as a Jewish prisoner and follows the woman she loves into the camp. When the camp is liberated by the British, Lotte, distraught by the death of her friend who has travelled with her from ballet-school through the camps, turns Kohlmann in to be tried and executed.
It is an extraordinary story but, unfortunately, it is not served by this production – at least, not by the production’s general smallness. As it stands, Under the Skin is underpowered and clumsy, and does not reach that for which it strives. Transitions between scenes were baggy, with too much space and silence – this may have been a technical error, with music coming in a good few seconds too late, leaving the actors stranded awkwardly onstage. There were many clanging lines which felt uncomfortable and ill-delivered, such as the moment when the young German journalist arrives to interview Lotte Rosner in Tel Aviv, and Rosner asks “did you come here to finish what your grandparents couldn’t do?” – coming out as a childish, playground insult, rather than a colossal and grotesque accusation. The actors sometimes struggled to connect to the story: there was some decent multi-rolling, and they certainly appeared confident, but the emotional tie to the narrative and to the characters was rudimentary at best. There was a moment of tenderness that was almost caught between the two actors playing Lotte and Anneliese, but it never quite reached the depths required to make the audience have any interest or investment in their relationship and the terrible circumstances surrounding it.
Under the Skin a noble and respectful attempt (with what I imagine to be a modest budget) and the actors certainly tried to do their best, but ultimately it did not achieve the story’s potential.