Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia is a mess, but it’s not the type of mess – or indeed, unpredictability – which lends itself to the absurdist comedy it is billed and set up as. Things are far too serious. A Jewish male, Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) is outside and buried up to his head, while his Muslim friend is colluding with Nazis – led by one known only as ‘Grandma’ (Ade Edmondson) – who have taken over.
If that sounds particularly unfunny given its severity, then you would be correct – at least for the first act of Josh Azouz’s 150-minute story. With short scenes and confusing flashbacks, it’s certainly not narrative-driven to begin with (for a long time, it was hard for one to ascertain just exactly who were the Muslim and Jewish couples). Instead, it looks clumsily character-driven. One would think that Victor would play an integral part in the production, yet he’s out of action for most of the first half, and he’s certainly not the protagonist. Who, exactly, is meant to be leading this story isn’t immediately obvious in amongst all the mundane exposition and character introductions. With no real plot driving them, it’s easy to disengage for most of Act One.
It’s only when Victor’s wife, Loys (The Sarah Jane Adventures‘ Yasmin Paige) is sat opposite Grandma, a man full of hatred for her religion and everything about her, that things get particularly tense, and we have our first sense of conflict – and that’s only about 10 or 15 minutes before the interval. The success lies with Paige and her limited body language doing its best to contain the erratic thoughts and fear rushing through her head, but Edmondson fails to establish himself as a threat.
That’s because Edmondson’s performance as the motormouth, verbal diarrhoea-stricken Grandma lacks any sincerity to make any danger plausible. It’s an absurdist character in a tense environment and rather than that allowing for comedy, the severity and gravity of two enemies meeting lacks any sense of consequence.
Where is his gun? Why, instead of poisoning Grandma, did Loys not whack him with the wine glass well within reach on the table? Yes, it may well be that the result of such a decision would be too great, but we don’t get a sense for that in Edmondson’s feather-brained and eccentric German in the first half. In the pursuit of the passive and being blissfully unaware of most things, it’s hard for us to take him – or indeed, the situation itself – seriously in any way.
And for the record, other productions have successfully struck the right balance when it comes to characters who are both haunting and comedic in their carelessness, and with that lack of attention in a position of power (which is hardly cemented here), comes the threat.
I think of two previous Martin McDonagh stagings: The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noël Coward Theatre, starring Aidan Turner; and A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, featuring Jim Broadbent – both performed in 2019. In both instances, a character’s disinterest in chaos is funny because their reaction to both serious and absurdist situations is unexpected, and a subversion of expectations is, of course, a hallmark of comedy.
In essence, it’s about pacing, and that’s often short, sweet and punchy, but Azouz’s waffling Grandma is anything but. Heck, the Nazi’s are unarmed for the whole play – save for a box of vipers – and so it’s simply Grandma’s words which have to do the heavy lifting for any kind of threat, and they do, a lot. A line about the fairly Gen Z term of ‘spooning’, for example, sparks little laughter amongst an older audience.
After the interval and the cliffhanger at the end of Act One, there’s finally a sense of risk. A Nazi’s hidden in a cupboard and his officers are looking for him. An absurdist character in an absurdist situation, Edmondson’s Grandma finally secures some responses from the audience. Victor, a criminally underused individual in the first half, is pivotal in Loys’ decision over whether to abandon Tunisia for another country. At last, the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim families, which so much of Once Upon A Time… is billed as being about, is placed under strain, as Loys’ connections with both her husband Victor and friend Youssef (Ethan Kai of Trafalgar Studios’ Equus) are called into question.
It’s unfortunate that a lot of the action comes only in the second act, in a way which makes one wonder why Loys isn’t clearly cemented as the play’s protagonist at the very beginning, rather than it being left ambiguous. As the characters decide how to get rid of a captive Nazi, there’s a curious musing on where such a decision would place them morally. It’s like the ‘baby Hitler’ thought experiment, but frustratingly underdeveloped. The set from Max Johns is equally minimalistic, with only two hidden compartments in his blockish wooden set.
Sadly, the word ‘minimalistic’ is true for a lot of Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied Tunisia, from the comedy, to the plot and the set. We’re often wanting more from Azouz, and when it comes – if at all – a whole act later, it feels rushed without an impact, and far too late.
Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 18 September.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied Tunisia’ for free as a member of their Young Critics programme. There was no obligation for me to review the performance in return, nor did I receive payment for this review. All opinions stated are honest and my own.