Joachim von Ribbentrop was Germany’s foreign minister between 1938 and 1945, and was a key player in Hitler’s Third Reich. He had the dubious honour of being the first of the ten men to be sent to the gallows at Nuremberg. Just how his wrist watch, complete with his initials and a swastika engraved inside, came to be in a second hand watch shop in Los Angeles in 1985, to be purchased – quite by chance – by author Laurence Marks, is a mystery. This mystery and the very real moral dilemma it created – whether it was right for a Jew to profit from a Nazi relic – was the inspiration for this fictionalised account.
Set in the North London home of failing fine wine merchant Gerald Roth (Nicholas Woodeson), and his Jewish-convert wife Ruth (Gwyneth Strong), Gerald faces the same dilemma, when having sent a watch inherited from his father to be repaired, he learns of the potential value of the timepiece and considers selling the watch to bail out his ailing business despite the identity of its past owner.
Played out over the Passover dinner table, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s black comedy raises many complex issues of faith and secularism - but in a light ‘sitcom’ style reminiscent of the pairs earlier TV works (Birds of a Feather, Shine on Harvey Moon, The New Statesman). It is this juxtapose that causes the play to falter slightly – the holocaust and man’s inhumanity to man are subjects difficult to deal with in a conventional comedic setting. The surreal sequence where von Ribbentrop himself appears - and draws uncomfortable parallels between the past and Gerald’s prejudices of the present – does not sit well with the otherwise unchallenging narrative.
However, the cast are excellent, and the characters perfectly drawn. The archetypal Jewish matriarch – played with relish by the excellent Barbara Young –struggles with her daughter-in-law’s faith, her son’s lack of faith, and the general state of being Jewish in modern Britain. Her tussles with long suffering Ruth provide many of the bigger laughs.
Although the story does not quite deliver on its initial promise, the play deserves a west end airing, and with a few refinements here and there will be a fine piece.