On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, the public areas of the Haymarket were littered with copies of a prayer for the death camp victims. It's informatively ironic, then, that the hero of Taken at Midnight, Hans Litten, who died in Dachau, was a non-Jewish lawyer who became a Jewish atheist in order to annoy his father who had converted from Judaism to German Lutheranism.
This first play by documentary film maker Mark Hayhurst, first seen at the Minerva, Chichester, last autumn, does two things extremely well: it reminds us that Hitler's campaign of obliteration began with subversives, journalists and playwrights on his own doorstep; and it provides a great role for Penelope Wilton as Irmgard Litten, Hans's mother who spends five years courageously seeking her son's release.
Hans's "crime" was to subpoena Adolf Hitler in a 1931 criminal trial and subject him to a humiliating cross-examination on political violence. Arrested on the night of the Reichstag fire, Martin Hutson's spindly, febrile Hans is first sent to "protective custody" in Sonnenburg, where his beaten-up cell-mates are Mike Grady's rueful left-wing editor and Pip Donaghy's hairy satirical anarchist.
Downstage, on the shiny black diamond of Robert Jones's cleverly designed setting, spatially upgraded to both use and undermine the Haymarket's proscenium gilt grandeur, Wilton's Irmgard storms the Gestapo HQ, demanding justice from John Light's implacable Dr Conrad. In the second act, she meets Conrad off-duty, even shares an ice-cream with him in the tea-garden.
She is following Hans from camp to camp in nearby apartments. What does she do all day, Conrad asks? "I wander the precincts of the city looking for irony in people's faces." She pleads that Hans is not Jewish, that they should take her to Dachau rather than him, but she's more cheered than dismayed to find that he's stuck to his principles and still finds solace in the poetry of Rilke.
The steeliness in her obsessive devotion is offset with a bitter acceptance of a situation she cannot redeem but won't stop trying to. There are added obstacles in her husband's conservative nationalism and the appeasement tendency of a high-ranking British diplomat, these two roles played with some finesse by Allan Corduner and David Yelland.
Although Jonathan Church's production amounts to a strong statement of the indestructibility of the human spirit, there's something neat and tidy about the play that militates against its fierceness. Well-crafted and slightly old-fashioned, it ticks various boxes of prison camp drama, mother and son relationship, authority under pressure and historical fresco; no bad thing.
But the double-headed climax – a last reunion followed by the cross-examination scene that started the trouble (Roger Allam's recorded voice as Hitler) – is too deflationary. A remarkable story, though, and a master class in unfussed hysteria and adamantine purpose from Penelope Wilton.
Taken at Midnight runs until 14 March at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Click here to find out more and book tickets.