Language is a fascinating and peculiar thing. The versatility of its nature; its power to shock, to educate, to impose doctrines, establish cultural values and to amuse continually informs our perceptions of human existence. The language of music even more so and in this production of Peter Arnott's Propaganda Swing – a co-production between The Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Nottingham Playhouse uses both to great effect.
In Nottingham Playhouse's Propaganda Swing we are introduced into a forbidden world of jazz and swing in the city of Berlin at the time of the so called phoney war. The then Nazi regime dictate that jazz music is a degenerate and hateful thing, culturally and ethnically impure and a target for their racist attitudes and comments. Over the years leading into the Second World War the jazz movement is driven underground and forbidden by the dictatorship. Unless of course it could come in useful as a weapon of propaganda by changing the lyrics to popular tunes and broadcasting them.
They say that forbidden fruit always tastes sweeter and those band members of the time that survived, many of Jewish origin, bravely carried on playing the sweet sounds of jazz and swing often literally – underground. Others like Charly's Band in the play found their musical talents perversely corrupted in order to generate propaganda through the airwaves. Human survival can drive people to strange perceptions of the right thing to do in extreme circumstances such as war.
In Peter Arnott's fascinating play we see the ludicrous racist ranting of William Joyce's Lord Haw Haw brilliantly portrayed by Callum Coates in one of the most authentic performances I've seen on the Nottingham stage. His character is at once laughable and chilling given that whilst the majority of the radio listeners of the time would have found his extreme attitudes untenable there would also have been those who were in accord with his anti-Semite and generally bigoted views.
This play engages on many levels. The multi-talented cast give their all through their acting, period dancing and playing of live jazz music and we are absolutely drawn into their characters lives as they live, love and try to make sense of a world that was at war. It is not without a great deal of humour throughout. The very human story has a various threads of humour woven into the fabric of its telling with a particularly strong thread of satire. In such a manner it reminded me of the musical Cabaret. The fabulous set designed by Libby Watson gives the show a stylish and cohesive whole and clear sense of place.
Most humorous of all was the warm portrayal of Otto Stenzl by Chris Andrew Mellon and his barbed stand up comedy routine, pin sharp and mesmeric is a highlight of the show. His defiant routine aimed squarely at the Nazis truly puts the camp into concentration camp.
The rest of the small cast were exemplary including Richard Conlon as Bill Constant the world weary American journalist and Miranda Wilford as romantically elusive jazz singer La La Anderson giving exceptionally strong performances as a couple destined never to fall properly in love.
An intriguing play highlighting a little known aspect of an era where just as you think everything has been covered you uncover a theatrical gem like Propaganda Swing that sparkles like a diamond glittering underneath a lamplight whilst buried in the dust and rubble of wartime Germany. Highly recommended.
Photo credits: Robert Day.