The Misfortune of the English at the Orange Tree Theatre – review
Pamela Carter's UK premiere runs until 28 May
These days it's hard to imagine a teacher leading a school trip that ends in the deaths of five students being hailed as a hero. But for years that's what happened to Kenneth Keast, who took 27 students on a doomed hike in the Black Forest in 1936.
As Pamela Carter's play infers, Keast was a foolhardy patriot, determined to show the supremacy of his English boys in the face of dire weather warnings from the German locals. Although he doesn't appear himself, his influence over the three pupils depicted on stage is clear: they revere him, and the values of stiff upper lip-ness he espouses.
Inspired by a Guardian article on the work of historian Bernd Hainmüller who researched the tragedy, Carter uses the story as an allegory for British exceptionalism. The blazer-clad boys – played superbly by Hubert Burton, Vinnie Heaven and Matthew Tennyson – are shown as both naive and fatally trusting in authority, whether it's Keast, the school, or the older pupils on the trip. They dutifully chant the school's Latin motto, "procedere" (advance), as they trek to their doom.
The play blends language from the present day with that of the time (at one point the boys join together in a rendition of "I'll Stand By You"), perhaps to emphasise the point that such hubristic attitudes have changed little in modern Britain. It also features a contemporary tour guide, played by Éva Magyar, who summarises the fall-out of the incident, which was used as a propaganda tool by Hitler to smooth anglo-German relations.
The best passages are when the boys are making their way through the growing storm. The cocksure Eaton, timid Lyons (who is Jewish) and half-German Harrison are all coming of age in the harshest environment imaginable. There are shades of Lord of the Flies. One extraordinary facet of the story is that so many survived the ordeal; many would go on to fight in the war.
Director Oscar Toeman precisely marshals the action, with the sequences of hiking conjured using very Hitler youth-esque exercise drills. It's a nice nod to the traces of fascism in the British public school attitude. The production is laced with such echoes; when Eaton starts singing "God Save Our Gracious King" at a group of German boys, he could be a football fan.
Ultimately though, this is a case of a great story not quite finding its perfect form. The section with the tour guide feels clunky (it didn't help that a technical glitch prevented designer Jasmine Swan's intricate model of the mountain rising from the stage floor), and the fascinating fall-out, including the quest of Eaton's father to bring Keast to justice, gets sadly short shrift. Nevertheless, it provides a welcome opportunity to get to know an illuminating episode of history.