Troublesome People by Jill Haas
Review of two act version at Derby Guildhall 2015
DERBY TELEGRAPH – BY LYNNE BRIGHOUSE
By staging Jill Haas’s searching play, Troublesome People, Derby theatre company Ashrow turned a timely spotlight on the experience of being displaced through war.
The theme is presented through the historical lens of the Second World War but the issues it raises around human rights, shifting power dynamics, prejudices, survival and petty jealousies arise with any major conflict, and are just as relevant to what is happening in the world today”
Events play out in a small farmhouse on the Isle of Man, where Ossie and Doreen Humber are struggling to keep their livelihood going after losing all their farmhands to the war.”
Left with slim pickings they reluctantly accept help from two conscientious objectors, married couple Sam and Honey Banks. At first they seem to provide some welcome company for their ill-matched hosts – until two more helpers arrive and upset the apple cart.”
The newcomers are sixteen-year-old Leo Tebrich, an innocent abroad, and the beautiful and glamorous Leni Hirschon. Both are German Jewish refugees, living in an internment camp until the Government decides what to do with them. But while Leo is young enough to see his new circumstances as an adventure, Leni feels bereft and angry. The fur coat she carries around with her is the last remaining symbol of another life; a life in which she was a successful, well-respected member of society, and she resents her lot.”
It is rare for a Second World War drama to spotlight the plight of refugees and Troublesome People draws poignant parallels with the victims of current world events, as the flight for survival brings up feelings of fear, uncertainty, alienation, hostility and powerlessness, as well as opportunities for a new life.”
Solid performances were turned in by all cast members, particularly Phil Reeve and Ashrow Theatre founder Rowan Scarborough, who were authentic and moving as Leo and Leni. The refugees begin their work placement in conflict with each other and experiencing fear and mistrust from farmer’s wife, Doreen. But the tensions which flare up between all the characters lead them to question their various assumptions and come to an understanding of the new realities they face.”
Throughout the play the cosy farmhouse kitchen set serves as an enduring backdrop to the general upheaval and turmoil of war while also adding to the sense of claustrophobia experienced by these character who have been randomly forced together under the same roof.”
The performance of Troublesome People at Derby Guildhall Theatre concluded a critically-acclaimed Summer Festival Tour of the production which visited festivals in Buxton, Brighton, Oxford and Edinburgh, helping to establish Ashrow Theatre Company as one of the leading lights of Derbyshire’s independent theatre scene.”
Reviews from Edinburgh Fringe 2015
FRINGE REVIEW – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The time is January, 1940 and Britain is immersed in the hardship and the terrors of war. We find ourselves on the Isle of Man in a farmhouse. The couple who live there have hired a conscientious objector, Sam Bankes played by Harry Owens and his wife Honey Bankes, played by Alison Harris to replace the hired hands they had before the war, who have now gone off to serve in the military to defend their country.
Looking back at history, we do not realize how hated and reviled people were who refused to fight against the axis and defend their homeland. This play paints an accurate, unvarnished view of the way the majority of people in this country refused to accept a concept that is universally understood today. “This is your world, not mine,” Sam says to his hosts. “This slaughter cannot go on.”
The farmer and his wife, Ossie and Doreen Humber, are played by Glen Kinch and Shelley Draper. Their characters embody the attitude of the time. UK citizens all believed the war was justified and our enemies were evil monsters who must be eradicated to save the human race. Fighting the Germans was making the world a better place for humanity. Anyone who disagreed with this attitude was labelled a traitor and less of a person. They were ostracized on every level.
As the play continues, the farm becomes an unintended haven for Leni Hirschon, a German Jew who fled her country, persecuted and diminished because she was Jewish. Rowan Scarborough plays Leni and she is amazingly sensitive to the conflict and anguish her character suffers through no fault of her own. The farmhouse community also includes Leo Tebrich (Phil Reeve) a teen-ager sent to safety from Eastern Europe on the Kinder Transport. He is lonely and afraid; his family has been taken away from him and he is trying desperately to become an adult before his time.
The interaction, the conflict and the hidden resentment of all seven of these people are expertly played out through action more than words. The original play was over two hours long and has been trimmed to essentials in one hour and twenty-five minutes production, but it still manages to emphasize the essential message of this drama. As Leni Hirschon says, “Why are we all punished? What terrible crimes have we all done?”
The play war examines the bravery and loyalty demanded of everyone during World War II. This production highlights the plight of individuals surviving on the periphery of this mass attitude of kill or be killed. The set is a perfect period piece; the pacing is excellent and the message profound. This reviewer was particularly impressed with Jenny Earl’s interpretation of Mrs. Stanton, the woman who placed these people in the farmhouse. One could feel her plight as she tried to help her clients find a place where they could be safe and unafraid. We watched her juggle fears and pacify prejudices to convince the conservative farmer and his wife that the displaced persons she was trying to help were not villains. They were people in desperate need.
The drama, even in its shortened version, is a penetrating study of people whose ideals are put to the test in a real life situation. When one comes face to face with a type of person whose moral code is opposite of his own, he sees that he is not dealing with just words that define a belief. He finds himself faced with a real human being with needs and dreams like his own. When that happens, one must question the absolutes that define his own life. The question in this play is: who can decide what is right or wrong for someone else?
This is a thoughtful piece that raises important philosophical challenges that are as present in today’s world as they were during the war.
By Lynn Ruth Miller
BROADWAY BABY- 4 ****
By Joshua Clarke 14th August 2015
The challenge for any writer tackling the well-worn topic of WWII is to find a particular niche or angle which has not previously been given adequate treatment. Jill Haas, in her exploration of the experiences of conscientious objectors and enemy civilians, has certainly hit upon such a point of departure.
In this production, there are unanswered questions which are not given satisfying clarity. We remain bewildered as to the reasoning for the unrelenting hostility of Doreen, the redoubtable landlady who is imposed upon by having to take in a Pacifist couple and two German internees. We are also left feeling as though several of the interwoven plot points are a little under-developed. However, it must be understood that Haas’ play has been greatly abridged due to Festival requirements. This understood, the many positives of the production may be contextualised.
The play is described as ‘character-driven’, and the embodiment of those characters by the entire company is unfailingly absorbing. The only slightly uncertain performance moments are where emotional outbursts seem in contradiction to what has come before – though this is almost certainly down to the required editing.
From the outset, the case for the defence of Pacifism is clearly made by the character of Sam Bankes, and his plainly articulated, well-reasoned argument establishes our framework for interpreting other characters’ reactions towards him and his wife and indeed for his gradually developing frustrations. Indeed, each character is well-developed and each contributes a unique outlook regarding their situation which contributes to the various tensions and misunderstandings that are readily believable as being genuine. Because of this, we are able to identify with their respective arguments and viewpoints in light of what we know of their subtly revealed backgrounds.
Set against a household which strives to keep itself running as normal, certain lines of dialogue stand out as particularly pertinent. We are left to consider for ourselves why it is that we ‘periodically’ slaughter one another and why wartime Pacifists were widely regarded as ‘traitors’. We struggle with questions regarding both the divisive and unifying power of religion. The scope of this play is laudable in its magnitude.
Phil Reeves’ portrayal of the young Leo is wholly warming and creates a great deal of sympathy for the often unconsidered displaced Germans who came to our shores. Mention should also go to Glen Kinch and Alison Harris for capturing the emotional heart of the piece, while Shelley Draper’s fearsome Doreen boldly maintains a high-level of drama throughout. Rich in characterful storytelling, and compelling enough to make us examine our own prior conceptions, Troublesome People comes highly recommended. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the full-length version in the future!
THE SCOTSMAN 3***
On A farm on the Isle of Man, the war against Hitler might be far away but it feels surprisingly close. Farm workers have been conscripted, but in their place Ozzy and Doreen Humber have Sam and Honey, conscientious objectors from London, and two German refugees, bright-eyed teenager Leo, and bitter, beautiful Leni, a former teacher.
As 1940 progresses, this idiosyncratic group laughs and cries, flirts and falls out, under the beady eye of farmer’s wife Doreen, who isn’t averse to stirring things up if the mood takes her.
Jill Haas’s ambitious play, brought to the Fringe by Derby-based Ashrow Theatre, explores the fact that the experience of the Home Front was about far more than keeping cheerful and banding together to beat Hitler. It exposed people to difficult new experiences and challenged stereotypes well beyond the comfort zone.
The company has worked hard to create a period feel to the production and, though the play has perhaps a few too many twists and turns, it goes some way to illuminating an important chapter of history through the lives of real, flawed, troublesome people.
Published in The Scotsman on 14 August 2015
BRIGHTON FRINGE REVIEWS 2015
THE STAGE – 4 ****
By Tom Wicker 18th May 2015
“Opening at Brighton Fringe before touring to other festivals, this new play from UK-based US writer Jill Haas – set during the Second World War – feels pertinent in today’s climate, as governments and media fixate on migrants, refugees and other ‘troublesome people’.
Haas spotlights a disparate group affected by the war, but not because they fought in it. Ordered to semi-internment on a farm on a barbed wire-fenced Isle of Man, married conscientious objectors, a German boy and a wealthy German-Jewish woman fleeing Nazi persecution struggle to adapt to lives restricted by their wartime status.
Skilfully directed by Frank Simms, this production captures the look and feel of the time, with bursts of radio evoking the world outside the farmhouse kitchen. A stellar cast brings to life the fractiousness of people thrust together and rebelling. Harry Owens is particularly good as conscientious objector Sam Bankes, mixing conviction with educated smugness.
The play stumbles over exactly how and when to end. But with the Isle of Man as a microcosm, Haas lucidly and compassionately lays out a Britain hardened by war into zealous patriotism and suspicion of ‘foreign’ and dissenting voices, inflamed by a blind-eyed government fudging its response to a complex situation.
A lucid, beautifully acted insight into a different type of wartime experience“
FRINGE GURU – 4****
By Bill Parsons 16th May 2015
“Sometimes you watch a compelling and lively BBC costume drama, set in WW2 let’s say, and think: hmm, if only they had a bit more intelligence in the script, a bit more challenge. Well, this production provides it. It’s a vibrant, very watchable play; saying the audience is captivated isn’t too strong. Partly it’s the writing, which has believable, interesting characters that you want to find out more about; partly it is the very high standard of the acting.
Doreen, a suspicious and damaged but business-savvy farmer’s wife, takes onto her Isle of Man farm not only two conscientious objectors, but also two Jewish German refugees. (They’re still German, she sniffs.) That sets up the play’s central political and social dynamic, but it’s the interpersonal developments that equally grip your attention.
The opening scene, where Sam , the conscientious objector, is interrogated by a contemptuous offstage government official, ups the ante straight away. The theme of blank, unfeeling officialdom is carried through the play, but it’s played realistically and without a heavy hand. As Leni the German refugee remarks, “The British government will do what it wants” – which in this case, includes interning a 16-year-old German Jewish boy as an enemy alien.
There is a tension here between the conscientious objector and the Jewish Germans; for the latter, to be pacifist is to be killed. Yet it’s a Quaker pacifist lady (think a progressive and likeable Mrs Snell from the Archers!) that has brought these people together, working to help on the farm.
Those themes permeate the play, but not in a stifling way. There is plenty else going on –Paul’s sexual vanity means he is only too pleased to think the beautiful Leni fancies him, even though that’s really just malicious gossip spread by Doreen. Leo, the younger German refugee, shows puppy-like adoration which is simply and compassionately portrayed. These, and other well-observed relationships between the characters, keep your attention on the stage.
It’s a completely realist play; the 1940s kitchen set on which most of the action is played out gives it a natural feel. The group portrait it offers also suits the closed and intimate environment of the Lantern’s performance space. If there is a complaint, it is that one of the plotlines concerning the farmer’s wife is a little sparse and odd; this was originally a two and half hour play, cut here to fit the Fringe, and her back story would have informed this plot development better.
But this is just a quibble. Believable and naturalistic dialogue with faultless delivery, sparky interactions, sympathetic but imperfect characters, great pacing and narrative progression mean that the audience hang onto every minute of the play. That this was first night makes it all the more impressive.”
REMOTE GOAT – 5 *****
By David Rummelle August 2015
“It is deeply satisfying that this creative gem arrives in it’s present form- just after the anniversary of VE day-as it’s message opens up even more questions, and confronts more prejudices and issues that resonate to this day. The period between the two great wars is described as ” Twenty years-barely enough to raise the next lot of fodder”- an excellent example of the kind of powerful dialogue this piece contains.
The directors (Frank Simms and Jenny Earl) writer (Jill Haas) and an ensemble cast in the true sense of the word have captured the style of the period and produced a piece worthy of J.B Priestley and Terrence Rattigan. In fact-that is what I came away feeling I had witnessed. There isn’t a week link in this production- even down to the amazing set and authentic period costumes of designer Kevin Jenkins-not a tea cup ,hairstyle, or dress out of place-spot on ! (The simple set with it’s ever open doors-must surely be a metaphor !.)
The subject of conscientious objectors, government legislation and enemy civilians in war time has been fully explored, honed and given body and soul by writer Jill Haas .Extensive re-working has ensured there is not a word of wasted dialogue in this compelling drama fully exploring “the English and their selective sympathy” in wartime ,And what we tend to forget is that a significant proportion of the play occurs outside the war years boundaries (in the same way as the holocaust)
The cast of seven produce fully rounded, fully explored and totally believable characters with whom we empathise believe in totally and feel we know- all within an hour and a half.. The timing ,emotion and characterisation is of the highest standard. The chemistry between the entire cast is electric.
Harry Owens sets a superb standard from the off with his portrayal as pacifist Sam Bankes- deeply moving and exquisitely timed. Closely followed by Shelley Draper as central character-Doreen Humber- giving the piece a strong backbone and momentum. She is ably assisted by Glen Kinch as husband Ossie- whose finely tuned performance is a joy.
Honey Bankes -beautifully portrayed by Alison Harris is the perfect pivot of emotion for the show. A fine portrayal by Jenny Earl of Mrs Stanton- brings even more depth to this remarkable evening. The dialects have been clearly honed and never become obtrusive- and Rowan Scarborough and Phil Reeve (Leo Tebrich and Leni Hirschon) are magnificent in portraying fully focussed and rounded characters-of whom we hang on every word of the well crafted dialogue-providing a wonderful balance of pathos, sincerity and innocence.
The passage of time is seamless -and a particularly moving Christmas scene is played with amazing poignancy and eloquence. The whole evening is a brilliant moving journey
By the end of this production-there is a wonderful resolution of feeling and belonging in finding new relationships and family in a time of national emergency- the piece never becomes maudlin or self indulgent.
In short-this is a drama -worthy of any TV writer-and should be adapted for television, radio-and film. Catch it while you can !”
BUXTON FRINGE 2015
United Reform Church. 22 to 26 July 2015
The internment of British Conscientious objectors is not a subject much talked about but this production takes us straight into a tribunal where Sam Bankes is explaining his stance and why he will not be joining ‘the war effort’.
The Isle of Man was used as a ‘holding’ cell for Germans who were either resident in Britain at the time of the outbreak of World War 2, who sought refuge from the Nazis or who came over on the ‘kinder trains’, usually Jewish they were categorised to assess their threat to national security and detained accordingly. Some were allowed to work on local farms to replace labour fighting for the allies.
The story takes place on one such farm. As each of the characters are introduced to us they are immediately identifiable. Each are clearly drawn and well defined as we view a ‘year in the life’ as they get to know each other and try and break down barriers and adjust to a life they had not really planned on living.
There is the hostile and resistant Doreen Humber who owns and runs the farm, her down trodden and compliant husband Ossie. Sam and Honey are already living and working there, having lost their jobs and exiled from London. Doreen is struggling to understand their point of view, surely it is everyone’s duty to ‘fight’, but seems to enjoy the company of the thoughtful and reasonable Honey.
Mrs Stanton, who’s job it is to place these interns, asks Doreen and Ossie to accommodate and give a job to Leo, who came on one of the Kinder trains and Jewess, Frau Leni Hirchon a professor of English.
The writing is excellent, the characters and their status are very quickly established. There is humour and sadness, and we get an insight into how the war affected not just those who fought on the front line but also those who were left behind or displaced. During war or peace, people are people and the age old emotions of love, fear of the unknown, jealousy are prevalent and may be exacerbated by circumstances.
Imagination is required to put on production in this venue as you are limited for space and there is no chance for any scene changes. These obstacles are overcome and the set is terrific and used to great effect. The props and costume are authentic.
The acting is superb. A fabulous ensemble piece, well researched, written and performed. I really enjoyed this production and would encourage everyone to go along to see this great human drama.