Written in 1951, John Van Druten’s play I Am A Camera will trigger moments of recognition for many more people than will initially be expecting it. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, it formed a major part of the inspiration for the Kander + Ebb musical Cabaret in its depiction of a 1932 Berlin whose Bohemian excesses are beginning to be curbed by the rise of the Nazi party to power. Suffering from writer’s block, Isherwood happily allowed himself to get side-tracked in the decadent whirl of the Weimar Republic and right in the heart of the storm, taking him along for the ride, is his great friend Sally Bowles.
Spread over a few months, Van Druten gives us vignettes of Christopher and Sally’s hectic lives, as well as those who are drawn into their orbit, like the inscrutable Fritz, the intense Jewish Natalia and the dashingly charismatic American Clive. It is Isherwood’s story, so we delve in and out of his memory – Nicolai Kornum’s lighting crucially good here – as tales of love and friendship play around the hopes, ambitions and trials of this group of people. The combined effect is one of a beautiful portrait of quietly observed humanity in all its complexity.
Barely recognisable as Dudley from the Harry Potter films, Harry Melling imbues Isherwood with a sinuous physical grace and a highly appealing charm throughout. His mostly unruffable demeanour makes him a steadying presence, but one filled with deeply felt emotion which comes out in his show of great maturity late on. Around him, Oliver Rix’s debonair Clive is a bundle of hat-tossing sexually ambiguous delight, Sophie Dickson and Freddie Capper negotiate a failed attempt at romance with skill and Sherry Baines’ domineering matriarch makes a strong late impression.
But it is Rebecca Humphries’ effervescent Sally who forms the epicentre of the action. A would-be actress who is no stranger to the company of men, she epitomises the whirlwind of the Bright Young Things with all their carefree insouciance and recklessness. But the spiral is going downwards and Humphries carefully lets us see that beneath the self-obsessed narcissism, there’s an essentially decent person who knows things need to change, and so creates a thoroughly likeable character – no mean feat at all considering the lightning speed with which she changes mood and nature.
Set in the one room – James Turner’s design capturing perfectly the drab clutter of a bedsit – in which Christopher, and then Sally, rents, the rise of fascism forms the backdrop against which these dramas play out and in a clever move by the playwright, it never becomes the focus of the play. Only when it impacts the characters directly do we really engage with it, and this offers a powerful, alternative view of what is must have been like to live through, both from the Jewish perspective but also from the point of view of normal German people just trying to get by, as exemplified by Joanne Howarth’s excellently played landlady who simply falls in line with the newly dominant ideology for a quiet life as much as anything.
The musical interludes that cover the scene changes seem a little like an extravagance too far, but in all other respects, I Am A Camera brims with a confident verve that demands to be seen. Humphries’ performance is a sensational piece of work but it is part of an ensemble in which all the pieces fit together perfectly to create a compelling drama that touches and uplifts the soul.