In 1939, the Ministry of Information tells us that “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might”. Now look what happens.
Apparently Defence Regulation 18b, 1939 -1945, was a deplorable necessity. Jake Leonard’s new play is a trim, shrewd, representation of how it worked, and is brought to Edinburgh by the New Theatre of the University of Nottingham.
It is nice to hear that a British intelligence officer sang in his school choir at Radley. It probably explains how he can draw a nonchalant line between an interrogation and an interview. So, as the beastly times call for, and with due courtesy and a crystal decanter in the corner, we have the “interview” of three women prisoners.
Being detained under Reg. 18b means that the Secretary of State has “reasonable cause” to believe each of them to be “of hostile origin or associations”. That could mean – in ascending order – that she flirts with fascists; that she’s German (or Austrian); or she’s had drinks with Hitler. In fact, whatever the cause, when the country is at war you can kiss your civil liberties goodbye. Even Churchill acknowledged that this regulation was “in the highest degree, odious”.
Lyon-Johns (Radley & Oriel, say) is the ranking officer, but his junior Thompson (maybe Ealing Grammar & MI5) is not the deferential sort, and they are beginning to question each other rather than the detainees. It is a wry take on the soft cop/hard cop routine, and just a sharp look or an exasperated glance wins a smile and quiet chuckle from the audience. Neither man seeks to deliberately undermine the other, they just have alternative readings of how to keep calm and carry on.
The three women are also very different to each other and – here is the play’s mainspring – each can and should be presumed innocent. Mrs Mortimer is well-spoken, is high-born, is highly-connected but – the State would contend – has “no moral sense” whatsoever. She is also witheringly good at answering questions. Miss Bow is a young actress and must be wondering, beneath her pretty little pillbox hat, what fearful play she has strayed into. And Miss Mäur is a German national, but has been working in England for six years and really does not want to go home. Thompson affords Mäur some sympathy – and you will too – but he knows that to offer her hope is a form of torture.
In lesser hands the play could have resembled a revolving door, but actually there is keen anticipation to be had as you wonder, “What will she say this time around?” And rather than being a stream of questions directed at frightened people, 18b is much less predictable, much more considered, and definitely more interesting as a result.
The attention to detail is remarkable – if rather too starched, especially in the ladies’ wardrobe. A more crumpled, lived-in look might have done better. And the WW2 songbook is definitely overplayed; the sound of receding steps down a prison corridor would be a more appropriately chilling effect to accompany the strains of patriotism.