Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia review – horror, humour and forgotten history

Almeida theatre, London
Adrian Edmondson plays a psychopath in Josh Azouz’s nuanced tragicomedy about Jewish-Arab relations in 1942

A man is buried up to his neck with only a geometrical desert around him – sand dunes made up of boxes and a disc of sun scorching his skin. It looks like a twist on Happy Days, all the more absurdist when the buried man begs his captor to urinate on his face so he can slake his thirst.

The opening scene sets a tragicomic tone, but this is not Beckett’s wilderness. Instead, it is from a moment during the second world war when the Vichy regime extended governance to Tunisia, then living under a French protectorate. The Nazis invaded the country in 1942. The buried man, Victor, is a Jewish prisoner in a labour camp and Youssef, an Arab, is his guard, reluctantly carrying out orders while sympathetic to Victor’s suffering.

The Nazis, or “blonds” as they were locally known, brought terror upon the Jewish population and dangled the promise of self-governance over Muslim Arabs, some of whom were wooed by the dream of independence to become allies.

Playwright Josh Azouz views the alliances and betrayals between the Jews and Muslims of Tunis though the prism of one friendship circle. Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee) and Youssef (Ethan Kai) are childhood friends, and Azouz deftly captures Youssef’s overarching loyalty while also showing us his slide into collaboration, along with his wife, Faiza (Laura Hanna). There is also Victor’s wife, Loys (Yasmin Paige), whose steely confrontation with a predatory Nazi commander forms the play’s central intrigue.

Adrian Edmondson as Grandma.
Adrian Edmondson as Grandma. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Directed by Eleanor Rhode, the show has a quirky comedy which is artfully combined with the deadly serious drama of Jewish persecution, so that we feel both the story’s humour and tragedy. The Nazi occupiers give themselves comic monikers – Grandma, Little Fella – and when a fight breaks out between Victor and Youssef, they pull each other’s ears and it never feels entirely serious. But there are moments of reported violence that leave us frozen: Grandma’s love of torturing his captors; Victor’s story of a friend at the camp who was condemned to sleep in a hole and turned to a block of ice by morning. Victor emanates shame as he describes sucking on the ice to relief his thirst.

The quartet of actors playing the friends are compelling and Azouz’s script lays bare the finer tensions between them, as well as arguments about Zionism and the paradox of finding a home in Palestine – an unknown territory to Victor and Loys. “We moved out of the [Jewish] quarter because we didn’t like Jews,” says Loys bathetically to Victor’s suggestion they go there.

Adrian Edmondson’s Grandma is the most cartoonishly drawn character. Hobbling on a walking stick because of a knee injury, the actor has more than a touch of Ken Dodd in his bug-eyed and perennially smiling portrayal of an eccentric psychopath. As unsavoury as he seems, Grandma lacks enough threat and fearful power in his exchanges with Loys.

Max Johns’s nifty set is almost entirely constructed of boxes that variously open up and conceal secrets. There are times when the pace flags and the plot’s plausibility feels over-stretched at times, but this is a lesser known side of Nazi history, delivered with nuance, and it is an achievement that the play keeps both its strains of humour and horror running side by side until the end.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia review – stiff with humorous intent
Mirth and menace fight it out in Josh Azouz’s play of shifting alliances, with Adrian Edmondson on fine form as a knitting Nazi officer

Susannah Clapp

05, Sep, 2021 @9:30 AM

Article image
A Christmas Carol review – Adrian Edmondson stars in a biting tale for our times
David Edgar’s sharp script feels close to home in this exuberant, illusion-filled version of Dickens’ seasonal but socially conscious story

Mark Lawson

08, Nov, 2022 @11:59 PM

Article image
Vulcan 7 review – the Young Ones meet again as old dinosaurs
Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer write and star in a Beckettian comedy about two past-it thesps making a sci-fi film on the edge of a volcano

Brian Logan

05, Oct, 2018 @9:56 AM

Article image
Twelfth Night review – fun and fury from Ade Edmondson and Kara Tointon at the RSC
This take on the classic comedy plays too heavily on its Victorian setting but delivers rapturous speeches, splendid sets and some clever ideas

Michael Billington

10, Nov, 2017 @12:47 PM

Article image
Shipwreck review – vital political drama takes Trump seriously
Liberal Americans slug it out in Anne Washburn’s sprawling play that unpicks the messy demise of democracy

Michael Billington

20, Feb, 2019 @10:58 AM

Article image
Albion review – Mike Bartlett's thorny study of politics and patriotism
Revived by Rupert Goold just over two years after its premiere, this subtle drama has grown with new meaning

Arifa Akbar

06, Feb, 2020 @12:19 PM

Article image
The Chairs review – slapstick sadness from a spine-shiveringly good duo
Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni are perfectly grotesque in this timely revival of Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist classic

Arifa Akbar

11, Feb, 2022 @1:32 PM

Article image
Spring Awakening review – desire and dread in coming-of-age musical
Rupert Goold’s production of the alt-rock musical has a talented young cast and some striking moments but the songs are often banal

Arifa Akbar

20, Dec, 2021 @12:01 AM

Article image
The Twilight Zone review – a spooky ride into the supernatural
Anne Washburn has adapted the TV show for an inventive production featuring tales of vanishing children, amnesiac teachers and alien interlopers

Michael Billington

13, Dec, 2017 @11:35 AM

Article image
Three Sisters review – Frecknall and Ferran reunite for clannish Chekhov
Patsy Ferran’s Olga is one of the many admirable performances in a production by Rebecca Frecknall that fails to deliver a full Chekhovian experience

Michael Billington

17, Apr, 2019 @11:19 AM