Review: Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia, at Almeida Theatre
Dark comedy treads a fine line between depicting the horrors of war and keeping the audience entertained
02 September, 2021 — By Lucy Popescu
Ethan Kai and Pierro Niel-Mee in Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia. Photo: Marc Brenner
JOSH Azouz’s play opens with the startling image of a man buried up to his neck in the sun-scorched desert, cleverly evoked by Max Johns’ pale wood boxes and Jess Bernberg’s lighting. As the title suggests, we are in Tunisia, 1943, during the six-month Nazi occupation.
Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) is the Jewish prisoner being tortured in a labour camp. His guard is his Muslim friend Youssef (Ethan Kai) who, seduced by the Germans’ promise of Tunisian independence, has joined “the Blonds”.
Victor’s tormentors are a Nazi commander (Adrian Edmondson), nicknamed Grandma (because he likes to knit), and his sadistic assistant Little Fella (Daniel Rainford). Grandma wants to know where Victor’s wife is hiding; he would like to pay her a visit. Little Fella manages to break Victor.
The first half concludes with a mesmerising scene between Grandma, exuding fake gallantry and bonhomie, and Victor’s wife Loys (Yasmin Paige) who is forced to serve him a home-cooked stew. Although Edmondson’s performance is electrifying, as a character Grandma feels increasingly cartoonish.
Later, Loys and Victor have to make some drastic life or death decisions and yet they find time to argue about their marriage, Loys and Youssef’s unacknowledged feelings for one another and debate whether they should flee to Palestine or remain closer to home.
These exchanges detract from the tension of their immediate predicament – how to evade the Nazis and escape in one piece – and sorely test our credibility.
I suspect this dark comedy will divide audiences. Azouz treads a fine line between depicting the horrors of war and keeping his audience entertained. Personally, I think he relies too heavily on the latter.
There are, however, some genuinely compelling moments and Azouz’s bold treatment of a difficult subject demonstrates his skill as a playwright. Fine performances and Eleanor Rhode’s imaginative staging make this a show worth seeing.
Until September 18
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