Minotaur Theatre is the brand name for the in-house production company at the UEA Drama Studio and their work is always worth seeing. The Studio is close to the bus stops and looks down onto the area where people queue for the gigs in the LCR.
The play Hard Fists is rich in contemporary detail from Germany in 1938, when it is set, and at first I though it must have been written at the time and more recently translated, but in fact it is written by Freya Bennett who has acted in and written several engaging works with Minotaur and Coast to Coast amongst others. It is a well-crafted play that tells a poignant story, looking at young adults facing the ‘coming of age’ challenges faced by free-thinking young people just as Hitler’s grip on the German psyche was reaching its peak. It is based on the real groups that flourished at the time under the general name of the Edelweiss Pirates, who were generally aged 14-17 and avoided joining the Hitler Youth and were too young at that time to be enlisted in the military.
The play starts with a new member, Karl (Tom Showell) being introduced to the group in their woodland hideaway by leader Hans (Jonny Davidson). Blindfolded he is poked and prodded and interrogated by the other group members. Oskar (Joseph Hollas) is the most suspicious of the newcomer, and shows a convincing level of teenage impatience throughout the play, never capable of just being still. Second in command Ilse (Elle Jenkins) is Jewish, and waiting for an apparently inevitable horror as her family are alienated from society. Artistic Brigitte (Nancy O’Melia) is the daughter of a Bauhaus architect, who has disappeared. Petra (Emily Law) is a sulky and apparently contemptuous girl who appears to be marginal to the group but actually is a key to its cohesion.
The group have the ups and downs and inevitable tensions of any group of youngsters who are discovering the constraints that accompany the transition to adulthood. They each progress at a different pace, and they each bring their tales of the families and backgrounds that have made them. Each member of the group has space in the script to tell more of their individual story. Some of these micro narratives are what you might hear from Norwich teens on their way home from school, or in a corner of Chapelfield Gardens. Gossip and early sexual adventures. But the context is sharply different. Norwich youngsters do not, hopefully, face war, death, victimisation and race- and religion-based hatred. Yet we live in times where those who claim to lead us are using some of the same fears and fables to divide us, to turn us against each other. Just this week we see our newly elected government trying to ship off a plane load of people to a country they may never have known with no justification. Those unlucky people have one thing in common – their ethnicity as part of the broader ‘Windrush Generation’ and descendants.
Co-directors Lorna Hale and Jack Oldcorn have set the play at a pace that is true to the age group. The play has some challenges for the actors as it requires them to spend quite long periods on stage, without losing their character, while the action moves around the group. It is to the great credit of the leading six actors that they achieve this convincingly. Listening in character is a tougher challenge than talking in character.
The venue means that this company will get a good turnout of enthusiastic fellow students, but the quality of their work deserves a wider audience and this is a play that could tour easily should the cast wish to, as it has minimal set and space requirements and works well in a small and intimate space.
The theme of tolerance and inclusion in a time of intolerance and division is particularly timely, but the work is often funny and engages the audience without ever seeming to preach a message. As so often with UEA based shows I feel like sitting a few MPs down and asking them to watch this work, then tell me exactly why they are so keen to divide us from each other and from our wider European community. It could be a very bleak tale, but in the part of the group’s lives that we share it is their common spirit and youthful optimism that defines this charming production.
© Julian Swainson 2020