This political satire by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood has scarcely been seen since its premiere in 1936. If it is revived now, it is clearly because Proud Haddock productions and the host theatre see parallels between the insidious nationalism of 1930s Europe and today’s world. While that gives the show a topical pungency, you feel that the form chosen by Auden and Isherwood, which is that of an anarchic revue, rarely matches the gravity of the subject.
The plot hinges on a quest by an English villager for a missing heir which takes him across Europe. Accompanied by a faithful dog, he visits a ruthless monarchy, Ostnia, and a fascist despotism, Westland, before returning to a Britain that is sliding into the decadent authoritarianism of its continental neighbours. The message is clearly that it could happen here, but the brushstrokes are too broad to do much damage.
The play is at its best in the choruses, clearly Auden’s work, which provide a vivid image of rural decay (“Dusty the gunrooms and the stable clocks stationary”) and in the musical turns of the second half.
Auden once said that pantomime was the biggest influence on the play, but while that is not sufficient to catch the horrors of Hitlerism, it leads to a very funny song (“Wherever you go, be it east or west / Remember British love is quite the best”) that reminds us that xenophobic breast-beating has long been a national vice.
Jimmy Walters as director and Rebecca Brower as designer manage to impose some coherence on this cheerful ragbag of a play by staging it as if it were a cabaret and by replicating the insignia of fascism on the banners of an English fete. There are also good performances from Pete Ashmore as the idealistic hero and Cressida Bonas as his canine chum, while Edmund Digby Jones and Eva Feiler skilfully play multiple roles.
The play often feels too larky for its own good, but when a vicar delivers a climactic sermon about the danger of a godless Britain descending into Bolshevism, you hear the authentic voice of a decade in which Church has become an instrument of state.
- At Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 31 March. Box office: 020-7287 2875.