The Moment of Truth
A rare revival of Peter Ustinov's 1951 play at Southwark Playhouse proves more effective at highlighting the work's weaknesses than its strengths, says Michael Coveney
Peter Ustinov, who died nearly ten years ago, was a brilliant and witty raconteur, a fine actor, man of parts, boy genius and enfant terrible (in his day) but a lousy playwright, as this limp revival of his 1951 satirical piece about the collaborative government in Vichy France demonstrates only too clearly, and painfully.
Fringe theatres like the Jermyn Street and Finborough have been recently unearthing forgotten gems almost every month. And it's game, if over-optimistic, of the New Actors Company to chip in at the Southwark Playhouse with a new look at Ustinov.
But it's also disingenuous of director Robert Laycock to suppose (in a programme note) that The Moment of Truth has something of value to say about today's wars, famines and atrocities. The first two acts show politicians shuffling for position after being overrun; the third and fourth acts show the puppet general declining like King Lear.
This Lear is a facsimile of old Marshal Pétain, appeaser of Hitler and head of the Vichy government, and his prime minister, Pierre Laval, is here twisted round as a comic manipulator – and very resourcefully played by Miles Richardson – intent on a compromise to end the slaughter (both men were condemned to death after the liberation).
Neither is "named" in the play, which certainly depends on background information for its effect. The marshal is played, somewhat tentatively, by a befuddled Rodney Bewes, and he has a spirited, Antigone-like daughter – "the girl" – played by Bonnie Wright, who was Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter films.
In her stage debut, Wright does reasonably well, but it's not always easy to relate what she says to the exact meaning implied. Damian Quinn strides around imposingly as the victorious invader, Toni Kanal is the marshal's nurse and Daniel Souter a critical photographer, a Shavian character who replaces the prime minister as a fount of common sense as the play progresses, or rather, collapses into a different sort of play altogether.
The splayed dimensions of the unlovely new Southwark auditorium don't help much, but the third act suggests a false conclusion after the girl's fiancé, a hero of the liberation, returns in a gas mask. Death, imprisonment and a possible suicide then lead to a reunion between Lear and his Cordelia which may be a dramatic resurrection or a fantasy epitaph, we can't be sure.
The oddness of it all keeps you interested, just about, but the mix of theatrical elements, witty repartee and narrative strands, which must once have seemed modern, even daring, now come across as merely frustrating; though one sequence, where the soporific marshal has to be photographed for propaganda purposes in different moods – thumping the table "to rouse the nation" and smiling sweetly with a sugar plum – might have been funny in a better production.