“What should we do when everyone acts less than human? We must act more than human.”
The true life story of Janusz Korczak a Polish Jew who protected some 200 children from some of the worst horrors of the Second World War may not seem a likely subject for a piece of musical theatre but strange as it may seem, it works with a devastating precision. It was written in 1998 for youth theatre groups by Nick Stimson (book and lyrics) who also directs here and Chris Williams (music) but this version is presented here by Youth Music Theatre – the UK’s leading national music theatre company for young people – at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.
In Liz Cooke’s stark, wire-caged design with occasional shots of video, the story moves from the orphanage Korczak set up in the Polish countryside, inspired by those he saw in England, where he attempts to shield the children from the war that is ripping their country apart, to the Warsaw ghetto where they are eventually shipped off to as the Nazis’ Jewish solution took hold. But rather than focus on the sadness and horror, the writers tell the stories of these children, the various ways in which they react to the challenges posed to their everyday lives and getting on with the business of growing up, learning about love, humanity and responsibility even as the shadows grow ever darker.
Through the teeming masses, there’s a cast of over 40, shards of these stories are illuminated which in turns lay the basis for future action. And this is where the production excels in creating believable characters in such short spans of time and in whose fates we consequently are thoroughly invested. The vaudeville rough-and-tumble of boys Bula and Izak, Harry Child and Ross Munro respectively, takes a deadly serious turn as they are both forced to grow up far too quickly in the harsh world once they make their escape; the delicate friendship between Hannah Thompson’s troubled Gienia and Sophie Garner’s big-sisterly Malgorzata carried through to a simply heart-breaking conclusion. All four of these performers did fantastic jobs, displaying impressive depth to portray the quandaries they all find themselves in, but I do have to say that I thought Hannah Thompson was just exceptional, her vocal control and intensity of performance belying her youth.
Other sub-plots weren’t quite as affecting: the love triangle, apparently straight out of Les Mis but soundtracked by Sondheim, didn’t really work without a fuller context though Joel Fisher and Lindsay Atherton did well to convince as the young lovers torn apart by religion. And the motif of the bird in captivity was a little overdone for me, though boy soprano Jo Moore sang gorgeously as Staszek. Holding this disparate group together is the sole adult, Peter Straker’s Janusz Korczak, a kindly father figure for all, Jews and Catholics alike, but played with enough steely edges and irascibility to ensure that this is no simple saint-like lionisation but the portrayal of an extremely good man, flaws and all. Piera Van der Wiel did well to bring a mature bearing to her Madame Stefa too.
Jon Laird’s 12-person band played Chris Williams’ score proficiently, taking in the aforementioned musical nods to Sondheim and Les Mis but coming into their own for the rousing hymn-like anthem about finding a new country. The score is a little repetitive in places but I rather enjoyed the stirring reprises as the tunes were mostly very strong. Special mention must go to Yoael Loewenstein’s movement too, director Stimson conjuring some beautiful moments: one stunning pre-echo sequence as the children go to sleep, an evocative telling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – itself a chilling clue – and later a neat swift shift from beggar-town to smoky jazz club, both working extremely well.
As with any show, there were a few teething problems, undermiking masked some of the singing and as ever in a company like this, the disparity in levels of training was exposed every so often. But on two weeks rehearsal, the overall achievement was simply superb and used the space of the Rose Theatre, not one I am particularly fond of, to great effect. Not knowing the story beforehand, I clung tightly onto my naïve hope throughout that a Hollywood miracle would occur but the brutality of the story – told with chilling simplicity which never sensationalises the unfolding horror and tragedy – was unrelenting, though balanced by the purity of its message. The final moment of revelation was one of the most heart-breakingly affecting moments I have seen in a theatre this year – highly recommended.
On a final, related, note, Korczak is yet another example of the rich and vast potential of musical theatre as a dramatic form that people really ought to open their minds to. It is no secret that I am a massive fan of musicals in all their varied glory but this is so far from the stereotypical view of musicals – in a similar vein to the recentThe Hired Man, Bernarda Alba, Parade or even London Road – that I really wish something could be done to force a major reappraisal in the way people view musicals. The music here provides a perfect conduit for the children to show their varied feeling en masse and allows for a depth of expressively emotional impact that just wouldn’t be the same in the spoken word. This then adds to its value as a historical document, its powerfully affecting message of something that shouldn’t be sugar-coated or forgotten which hopefully will ensure its enduring legacy: something the jingoistic Churchill-centric Three Days in May, another WWII play I saw this week in one of those quirks of the booking diary, would have done well to remember.