REVIEW: Is resistance futile in Alone In Berlin at York Theatre Royal?

Denis Conway’s Otto Quangel and Jay Taylor’s SS Officer Prall in Alone In Berlin

Review: Alone In Berlin, York Theatre Royal/Royal & Derngate Northampton, at York Theatre Royal, until March 21. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

IT is rare to have a perspective on the Second World War from within Germany itself, presented on stage or screen.

What’s more, Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret was a Broadway musical rooted in Anglo-American Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical 1945 novel The Berlin Stories, set in Weimar Republic Berlin in 1931 with the Nazi Party on the rise. There could be no more cynical voice than that of the nightclub Emcee; entertainment at any price.

This year, New Zealander Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a satirical account of the last year of World War Two, as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old Hitler Youth enthusiast in a German town, garlanded nominations aplenty in the Hollywood awards season but opprobrium in equal measure. How did it end? With the boy and a newly free Jewish girl dancing to David Bowie’s Heroes, sung in Deutsche.

Joseph Marcell’s Inspector Escherich, Clive Mendus’s Benno Kluge and Jessica Walker’s Golden Elsie in Alone In Berlin

Alone In Berlin is a different beast altogether, still with songs (more of which later), but far removed from the powder and paint, mirage and murk of Weimar cabaret or a small-town boy’s loss of innocence. The source novel, based on a true story, was written by a German, the maverick Hans Fallada, responsible for Little Man, What Now? too.

Also known aptly as Every Man Dies Alone, it was published in 1947 – the year Fallada died of a morphine overdose – but not in English until 2009.

Since then, there has been Vincent Perez’s 2016 film with Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson and now this York Theatre Royal and Royal & Derngate Northampton co-production, translated and adapted by playwright and political satirist Alistair Beaton and directed by James Dacre, the Northampton theatre’s artistic director.

We watch it through the 2020 filter of grim, vulnerable times, in a year of floods, storms, immigration intolerance, Brexit’s cold shoulder, myopic political leaders, and now the creeping spread of Coronavirus. “This is war,” an exhausted Italian doctor said yesterday.

Resistance movement: Charlotte Emmerson’s Anna and Denis Conway’s Otto Quangel in Alone In Berlin

On the one hand, there is heightened awareness of the need for collective responsibility, but, on the other, a fear that other factors may over-power it, and where does that leave individual action as we wash our hands ever more feverishly? We are indeed, as everyone is in Fallada’s book, very much alone, and seemingly not in control of our destiny.

Such a feeling prevails in Alone In Berlin, where the central question is whether an individual can make a difference through courageous acts of protest when standing up against the drowning tide of Nazism.

Hard-working carpenter Otto Quangel (Denis Conway) and worn housewife spouse Anna (Charlotte Emmerson) have just learnt that their only son, Marcus, has died in action, honourably serving the fatherland, the letter says, but they see no honour in it. Nor does his fiancée Trudi (Abiola Ogunbiyi), who joins the Resistance movement, although the subsequent arc of her story shows how ultimately alone everyone is under duress.

Yes, they had voted for Hitler – more precisely Otto told Anna which way to vote, she says – with Hitler’s promise of jobs to end the Depression, but they had since grown disillusioned. Their boorish, bragging bully of a neighbour Borkhausen (Julius D’Silva), feels empowered to persecute the Jewish woman next door; he and petty criminal Benno Kluge (Clive Mendus) are exploiting the vulture opportunities of Nazism’s tyrannical grip.

Jessica Walker’s Golden Elsie, centre, with Charlotte Emmerson’s Anna and Denis Conway’s Otto Quangel in the shadows

What would you do in such testing circumstances? Keep your head down? Keep making coffins as carpenter Otto now is? Or start a campaign of civil disobedience, as Otto decides he must, no matter how small the defiant act, prompting him and then Anna to write to write messages on postcards he stealthily distributes across Berlin, calling on fellow Germans to resist?

Most fall into the hands of the authorities, represented in Fallada’s suffocating story by Gestapo officer Inspector Escherich (Joseph Marcell), a veteran policeman, adapting to do what he must do to survive, and his superior, SS Officer Prall (Jay Taylor), ambitious, merciless, the embodiment of all the very worst Nazi stereotypes.

Once the trail leads to Otto – spoiler alert – the most telling scene has Otto confronting Escherich’s expediency. “You don’t believe in anything,” he scolds him. That shocks Escherich to the core, and in turn it challenges us too, to cling to our beliefs, to cling to hope for the better path, to defy, to resist, if necessary, and to go it alone as the starting point, but with conviction that others will follow.

Dacre’s meticulous, methodical production is one of very high production values, and devastating performances by Conway, Emmerson and Marcell in particular, but it is not wholly successful.

Omnipresent angelic statue: Jessica Walker’s Golden Elsie

Beaton’s script sometimes sails close to the prosaic, and Jessica Walker’s omnipresent angelic statue Golden Elsie, matching the black and white of Jonathan Fensom’s stark set and Nina Dunn’s video designs, will be a divisive figure for audiences.

Essentially a one-woman Greek chorus, she is more reporter than commentator, and while she may echo Weimar cabaret in style, Orlando Gough has given her dissonant, flatlining operatic songs, always eluding a tune and relentless as toothache. This is probably deliberate, but the sheer number of songs is a drag on the play’s momentum.

Jason Lutes’s illustrations from his graphic novel Berlin are used brilliantly, Charles Balfour’s lighting is in turn dazzling, oppressively dark and intimidating; Donato Wharton’s sound design is exemplary.

Ultimately, Alone In Berlin, will have an impact beyond those fault lines in its telling. It will make you think, reflect, whether alone, or better still, together in the bar afterwards. Hopefully, too, it will make you want to make a difference, to push back against the crush, to be the first flutter of the butterfly’s wing.

Charles Hutchinson

Joseph Marcell’s journey from what the Bel-Air butler saw to what the Gestapo inspector sees in Alone In Berlin

Denis Conway and Charlotte Emmerson as Otto and Anna Quangel and Joseph Marcell as Inspector Escherich in Alone In Berlin. Picture: Geraint Lewis

JOSEPH Marcell will be in York from March 3, appearing as a Gestapo inspector in the British premiere stage adaptation of Alone In Berlin at the Theatre Royal.

“As a non-white actor, I don’t get to play Nazis, so it’s a terrific boon to be playing Inspector Escherich,” he says, now settled into the second week of performances at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, York Theatre Royal’s co-producers of Alistair Beaton’s adaptation, directed by James Dacre.

Best known for his six seasons as the dry, sardonic butler in the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air from 1990 to 1996, the St Lucia-born, Peckham-raised Marcell has played Othello in 1984 and King Lear in 2014 in a career that has taken him to the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the West End and Broadway.

Now, as Inspector Escherich, he must track his quarry through ever-narrowing circles of totalitarian hell in Fallada’s story set in Nazi-era Berlin in 1940, where factory foreman Otto Quangel (played by Denis Conway) and his wife Anna (Charlotte Emmerson) join the German Resistance after their son’s death.

Joseph Marcell’s Inspector Escherich with Clive Mendus as Enno Kluge and Jessica Walker as Golden Elsie in a scene from Alone In Berlin. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Based on true events, Alone In Berlin becomes a vividly theatrical study of how paranoia can warp a society gripped by the fear of the night-time knock on the door, as the quietly courageous dissident couple stand up to the brutal reality of the Nazi regime, defying Hitler’s rule with the smallest of acts. Such actions prompt Marcell’s meticulous, methodical Escherich to seek to catch them.

“I hadn’t been aware of the novel beforehand, though I’ve since read it after I landed the role,” says Joseph, 71. “It’s really difficult to get a German perspective on wartime life in a German city in the Second World War, but Fallada presents the story of the working ‘stiff’ who has to survive in Berlin.

“This is a story that’s not told: the story of an ordinary German in the war, when we usually hear of heroes and villains.”

Joseph continues: “People seeing the play so far have been a little surprised that it’s full of domestic drama rather than jackboot marching, but it’s the story of an ordinary man [Otto Quangel] who gets to breaking point, and regardless of what might happen, he has to take a stand.”

“For Escherich, it’s not just about survival but the quality of survival ,” says Joseph Marcell. Picture: Geraint Lewis

Escherich is fighting for his own survival as a policeman who has been made a member of the Gestapo. “Now he’s no longer a policeman, but paramilitary, and you find him almost succumbing to the violence of the Gestapo,” says Joseph of his flawed character.

“He’s the opposite of Otto, who has to stand up for what he believes in, whereas for Escherich it’s not just about survival but the quality of survival.”

Analysing Escherich’s character further, and in particular once he has to work for the Gestapo, Joseph says: “He’s in it, but he’s not of it,” he says. “He’s a survivor, who has integrity, and though he works for the Nazis, he doesn’t realise he’s a Nazi.”

As part of his research for the role of Escherich, Joseph met up with a friend who was a “bigwig” at the Imperial War Museum in London. “He explained to me that detectives who worked for the Gestapo were seen as [the equivalent of] rock stars,” he says.

Joseph Marcell in rehearsal for Alone In Berlin. Picture: Manuel Harlan

“But they saw themselves as detectives first, who dealt with facts, and handling facts was something they had been trained to use all their lives, rather than rounding up six chaps and beating them up for information.”

While a sense of impending doom hangs over Alone In Berlin from the first beat, says Joseph, “what makes the story special is that it’s not about kings and queens and admirals, but an ordinary man struggling for survival.

“It makes you ask yourself, ‘would I resist or simply survive?’. ‘What would I have done in that situation?’.”

Who is “alone in Berlin”, Joseph? “They are all alone. In the end, it’s Otto and Anna who are alone, but the inspector is alone too. He has no interaction with ordinary people, except in trying to solve a ‘crime’. They must each take their individual journey,” he says.

Joseph Marcell’s Inspector Escherich interrogating Denis Conway’s Otto Quangel in Alone In Berlin. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Joseph, who was raised in Peckham, South London, from the age of nine, and trained initially to be an electrical engineer, has played a multitude of roles in a distinguished career. One so distinguished that he has been made a cultural ambassador of St Lucia, his Caribbean homeland, and he sits on the American board for Shakespeare’s Globe.

“All the roles you play have to be distinctive, whether Inspector Escherich or Lear [in King Lear for Shakespeare’s Globe in 2014],” he says. “The wonderful thing about Lear is that it’s the story of king who degenerates into a state of hopelessness but then re-emerges, essaying on the nature of kingship.

“After two years of playing Lear, I was exhausted, but with age and exhaustion comes the knowledge that though you seek perfection, there’s no chance of it. Each role requires an honesty, a dedication, whether it’s Hamlet, Othello or Lear.”



Recalling his six years starring with a young Will Smith in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air in the 1990s, Joseph says: “The most important thing at that time was being a highly successful television star. I couldn’t go to an event without NBC having a word about what I could say, what I should wear, so it’s a completely different process.

Joseph Marcell in the role of Geoffrey Butler, the butler, in The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air

“I was employed to play a role and people say I played it successfully – and nothing succeeds like success in America.

“I didn’t go to ‘butler school’, but I did speak to someone in Britain and two in Los Angeles about what being a butler entailed. The role was written by satirists from the New Yorker magazine and it was up to me to make it truthful.”



Truthfulness in a role is always important to Joseph, as is the never-ending pursuit of perfection. “After a hit role like Geoffrey Butler, in many cases actors might retire and live on their hard-earned gains, but I am an actor and I want to act and I want to do it perfectly, and that’s what I want to continue to do,” he says.

“That TV role has afforded me choice and I have to say I do what I want to do and I’ve been lucky enough that people think I can do it. That’s why I get to make three films and do four stage roles each year.”

” All the roles you play have to be distinctive, whether Inspector Escherich or Lear ,” says Joseph Marcell. Picture: Manuel Harlan

On Monday this week, Joseph was taken to lunch at Claridge’s, in Mayfair, to discuss an upcoming movie role. “I’m going to be in my first Western, Trees In Texas, a film with a lot of African-American history in it,” he reveals.

“I’ve finished a film made in Mexico, an Hispanic production called The Exorcism Of God, directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, and there’s a BBC piece I might be doing, playing an exorcist.”

As for the stage, he has one Shakespearean role he would still love to play: Prospero, the protagonist with magical powers in The Tempest. That will surely come his way.

York Theatre Royal and Royal & Derngate, Northampton, present Alone In Berlin, York Theatre Royal, March 3 to 21. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

York Theatre Royal to co-produce world premiere of Alone In Berlin

Denis Otway, as Otto, Charlotte Emmerson, as Anna, and Joseph Marcell, as Inspector Escherich, in York Theatre Royal and Royal & Derngate Northampton’s Alone In Berlin. Picture: Geraint Lewis

REHEARSALS are under way for the York Theatre Royal and Royal & Derngate Northampton co-production of the world premiere of Alone In Berlin.

Charlotte Emmerson, Denis Conway and Joseph Marcell will lead an ensemble cast, directed by the Royal & Derngate artistic director, James Dacre, and rehearsed in Northampton, where the play will open next month before its York run from March 3 to 21.

Hans Fallada’s novel has been translated and adapted for the stage by Alistair Beaton. Furthermore, the premiere will feature illustrations 25 years in the making by graphic novelist Jason Lutes – from his book Berlin – who collaborates with designer Jonathan Fensom,video designerNina Dunn and lighting designer Charles Balfour. 

Cabaret singer Jessica Walker will perform original songs composed by Orlando Gough, complemented by composition and sound design by Donato Wharton.

Set in 1940, Alone In Berlin portrays life in wartime Berlin in a vividly theatrical study of how paranoia can warp a society gripped by the fear of the night-time knock on the door.

Based on true events, the storyline follows a quietly courageous couple who stand up to the brutal reality of the Nazi regime. Through the smallest of acts, they defy Hitler’s rule, facing the gravest of consequences. 

This timely story of the moral power of personal resistance tracks Otto and Anna as they negotiate the insidious effects of absolute power on every aspect of daily life. When they decide to make a stand in their unique way, the Gestapo launch a terrifying hunt for the perpetrators.

Otto and Anna find themselves players in a deadly game of cat and mouse with the forces of the state: a game that will eventually lead them down through ever-narrowing circles of totalitarian hell.

Described by Italian Jewish chemist, partisan, Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”, Alone In Berlin re-entered the bestseller list three years ago – almost unheard of for a 20th century literary classic – as its themes began to resonate across the world once more.

Although regularly adapted for stage productions across Europe, this York and Northampton co-production, presented in association with the Oxford Playhouse, will be the first time Fallada’s masterpiece has been seen on a British stage.

Dacre’s cast will be led by Denis Conway and Charlotte Emmerson as Otto and Anna Quangel and Joseph Marcell as Inspector Escherich. Conway played opposite Poldark leading man Aidan Turner in Michael Grandage’s The Lieutenant Of Inishmore and is known for his extensive work at Dublin’s Gate Theatre and on screen in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley, John Crowley’sBrooklyn and Oliver Stone’s Alexander.

Emmerson’s many credits include title roles in Marianne Elliot’s Therese Raquin (National Theatre) and Laurie Sansom’s The Duchess Of Malfi (Royal & Derngate) and leads in Chekhov’s major plays in productions directed by Peter Stein, Lucy Bailey and Trevor Nunn.

Best known for playing Geoffrey Butler, the butler, in the 1990s’  television series The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, British actor and comedian Marcell was last seen at Royal & Derngate in King John, while his numerous credits for Shakespeare’s Globe include the title role in King Lear.

York Theatre Royal and Royal & Derngate Northampton co-produced Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge last year, directed by Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster.

Tickets for the York run of Alone In Berlin are on sale on 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.