Timing is everything.
That is a maxim about theatrical matters which kept coming to mind while watchiong the Bitter Pill Theatre Company’s production of Big Brother Blitzkreig playing at the King’s Head theatre, following a successful season in Edinburgh at the Fringe Festival in 2014. A satire about the television institution which is Big Brother is the kind of thing which has been embraced by genres as diverse as Doctor Who and French and Saunders, so it is natural fodder for a satirical play.
But in the week where Channel 5’s Celebrity Big Brother 17 carried a stygian black farce concerning mistaken identity in the wake of the revelation of David Bowie’s passing, a set of circumstances and featuring a range of characters that even the finest satirical writer would be hard pressed to create, it takes a pretty remarkable conceit and execution to be able to successfully satirise a show that keeps re-inventing itself and moving into different and darker territory. Writers Hew Rous Eyre and Max Elton, who have re-developed Big Brother Blitzkreig from its earlier incarnation for this season, are not equal to the task of meeting and exceeding the bar set by the recent “Which David is dead?” sequence on television.
The idea underlying Big Brother Blitzkreig is both simple and fascinatingly complicated. Adolf Hitler, at some early time in his personal timeline, well before he is elevated to Chancellor and given the keys to the Reichstag, attempts suicide. He fails, but finds himself in the Big Brother House – quite how is never explained. He is accepted as a Housemate, both by the existing Housemates and by Big Brother – a curious notion, given that no one can access the House without Big Brother’s concurrence. Again, not explained.
Through his experiences in the House, and his interactions with the other Housemates and Big Brother himself, Hitler learns the fundamentals of propaganda, oppression and suppression and so becomes equipped to become theAdolf Hitler, the one who will foist world War Two upon the world. How he returns to his own reality and fulfils the obligations of history is never explained either. In this respect, the script resembles the recent work of Steven Moffat in Doctor Who – there is a time paradox story fundamental to what happens here, but the effect is everything, the detail is nothing.
Except that this script is heavy handed in every way. It is not witty or piercing – as really good satires can and should be. Its jokes, few as they are, are clunky and obvious. Although the situation is actually quite promising, the authors do not reap from what they have sown. There are some fatuous jokes, the kind you might expect from University comedy revues, but nothing that causes real mirth.
It is, ultimately, very disappointing – because the premise promises a great deal. Much like the Housemates on television, one suspects, this would all be more tolerable and interesting with a supply of free alcohol, but its intrinsic or artistic value as a piece of satirical writing is questionable and limited.
The writers also direct, and this seems to compound the problems with the production. It’s possible, just, that a more detached directorial hand could have found a way to put the blitz into this particular blitzkrieg. But one has the feeling that the writers/directors think the material is cutting edge and electrically amusing – a feeling not shared by the audience I saw the production with.
There are some perfectly adequate performances. Stephen Chance is an affable embryo Adolf, and it is something of an achievement that he manages to actually build empathy with the audience. But the delivery of the drawn out dialogue is snail crawlingly slow – crisp, sparkling delivery might assist in every way.
There is something endearing and trềs amusant about George Smith’s laconic laid-back voice of Big Brother – the sonorous simplicity of it works very well. He captures the nonchalance of Samuel Barnett to perfection. Likewise, the somewhat obvious Katie Hopkins clone, Lucy, is nicely played by Jenny Johns. Acerbic and indignant, but faintly intelligent and brusquely arrogant, Johns’ is most rounded of the Housemates. She just doesn’t get dialogue which is good enough.
Both Hannah Douglas and Neil Summerville play stereotypes rather than real characters; Summerville’s Felix is a kind of eccentric Louis Spence (but without the lisp or eccentric choreography skills) and Douglas’ Charlie might have been in Misfits or Skins (or both). Neither are remotely real people, one a Masterace Gay, the other a Masterrace Genderfree, but nor are they sufficiently excessive to be truly satirical.
Tracey Ann Wood plays the Jewish character, Rachel, sensible and staid, fodder for Hitler’s hatred. As a character, Rachel needs more dimensions than are on show here; this is not down to Wood, but the writing. Kit Loyd plays an uber-cool dude named M-Cat. If only his dialogue and narrative matched the potential of his ludicrously named character.
Allegra Fitzgerald provides a clever enough costume and set design and there is some uncredited functional lighting.
This is faintly amusing – but, actually, the premise calls for more disciplined, sharper writing. Halfway through, one could not suppress the feeling that it might have all worked that much better had it been a musical. Springtime For Hitler satirises Adolf much more efficiently than Big Brother Blitzkreig satiries Big Brother.
A missed opportunity.