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Heaven in Berlin

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Berlin: a city of inspiration over the years for writers and rockstars alike, whether it's Christopher Isherwood or David Bowie.

But in the mid-1980s under communism, life on the wrong side of the Wall wasn't all grunge parties and underground art hang-outs - your neighbours could be government informers. That's the uneasy setting for new promenade piece Heaven In Berlin.

Aging rocker Brian (Ian Bailey) takes up a post as lecturer at the university - and when he shacks up with colleague Greta (Annabel Capper), her prodigal violinist daughter Judi isn't best pleased. It pushes Judi to seek out Ida the cleaner who is far more than she seems.

Testbed 1's empty industrial room in Battersea works well as the East German capital - and Ciaran McConville was brought in to write the script for Hobo Theatre's show after they had improvised characters with the space in mind. It is effortlessly, cleverly used, with figures silhouetted in spotlights (kudos to lighting designer Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson) while walls created as we watch with rolls of paper wrapped around metal pillars are later punched and torn for us to peer through like spies.

Brian is based on no specific real life figure but with a psychedelic, twangy reverb soundtrack influenced by Bowie and Iggy Pop (played by a live guitarist complete with leather jacket and moody looks), we get the idea. When his angry son Mark (Boris Mitkov) comes to drag him back to reality, can he learn to confront death and see the oppression around him?

It's the surrounding characters who are most fascinating though - James Meunier's genial but vicious Stasi official subtly menaces bright-eyed, shrugging Ida (Ida Bonnast) for her relations with wilful Judi (Heather Nimmo).

Director Jamie Harper draws us around the space well and the 'communist extras' who wash around us, watching the action or moving the set, create a real sense of being constantly surrounded.

Heaven In Berlin is unpredictable, well-crafted, harsh and at times dream-like - the spot where stood for a beautiful scene with bubbles later hosts a zombielike dancehall - but the interval seems unnecessary and as a fellow audience member remarked during the fifteen minute pause, it does rather break the spell.

- Vicky Ellis


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