Talking With Angels is an earnest and heartfelt adaptation of a real-life memoir, penned and performed by actor Shelley Mitchell. Initially presented as a lecture, but soon diverting onto a reconstruction of the events described, Mitchell tells the tale of a Hungarian woman from a Christian background called Gitta Mallasz – who in 1943 came to believe that her Jewish neighbour, Hanna Dallos, was speaking with the voices of angels. As the Nazi chokehold tightens around Mallasz and her friends, the story moves to Budapest, and turns to the struggle for survival in a brutalised city.
Much of the play is spent relaying the angels' messages, and if you have a faith – if you accept that these could be the thoughts of whichever god you place your trust in – then it's possible that you'll be moved by their epigrams. But if, like me, you were hoping to gain some insight into beliefs you don't personally share, then there is little here to latch onto. The angels' words are relayed uncritically, without interpretation, and to my non-religious mind seem simultaneously inscrutable and trite. "Waves breaking on the shore; now that's an infinity of small deaths, and that is life," runs one typical example.
But another, far more compelling story runs alongside the visits of the angels. Mallasz' opening gambit is to note that she saved 100 Jewish women from slaughter by Hungarian pro-Nazis; and there is indeed a fascinating tale of duplicity and compromise threaded through the second half of the play. Many of Mallasz' friends agree to disguise their Jewish origins by being baptised – a horrifying dilemma for them, which is skipped over far too quickly in the monologue – and astonishingly, by exploiting disagreements between varying factions of Nazism, Mallasz eventually manages to place her charges under the watchful protection of the SS.
But to make this a satisfying play, we need a little more understanding of how the two stories link together; how the angels, whether they were real or perceived, affected Mallasz' unquestionably courageous work. As it stands, the juxtaposition of ideas feels highly insensitive at times. At the height of the persecution, an angel observes that the women are "prisoners of their habits" – a very odd comment to make while millions of Jews are literally imprisoned in places like Dachau.
Mitchell is plainly an extremely capable actor. She's thoroughly convincing as the elderly Mallasz, and she builds the immersive scenario of the lecture very well, responding cleverly in-character to minor distractions around her. But her interpretation of the angels themselves is exaggerated, almost to the point of parody. With ethereal movements and intonation intended to match the riddling epigrams, the physical performance is just too obvious, like actions illustrating a story for children.
And here's something which, at the Fringe, is truly a sin: on the day I saw it, Mitchell went 10 minutes over her already indulgent running time. Overall then, Talking With Angels might make sense in a faith-based context – but it lacks the crispness, coherence or insight required to stand up as a true piece of theatre.