Review: Camp Siegfried – Old Vic

The last few months has seen a spate of small cast shows at major theatres across London, no doubt to keep costs under control after a punishing couple of years and to allow for as much resilience in the event of renewed restrictions. 


One such show is Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic, a two-hander which charts the relationship between two teenagers across one summer at a youth camp on Long Island, just before the Second World War. 


Though the two, only ever named as Him and Her, are fictional, the camp is real. Writer Bess Wohl has uncovered a lesser known but no less terrifying piece of history – the existence of a series of German run camps for children of German descent in America, ostensibly run to offer wholesome summer activities for teens but actually seeking to indoctrinate young people with Nazi propaganda and (almost unbelievably) to encourage teenage pregnancy and therefore an increase in the pure blooded German population. 


Against this backdrop Him and Her meet and navigate the expectations that come with attendance at the camp. Him (played by Luke Thallon) is confident and unquestioning, throwing himself into outdoor pursuits (a scene with him chopping a series of logs with single blows is particularly well done) and seeking a partner. Her (Patsy Ferran) is far less confident, terrified of sports, a high achiever at school who is far more questioning of the rules and ideals of the camp.


As the play progresses, the two gradually switch positions. The apparent use of her own intellectual rigour against her draws Her into a celebration of the kind or oratory that Hitler used to such persuasive effect, leading ultimately to a monstrous transformation into full blown fascism. Meanwhile Him moves in the opposite direction and we gradually come to understand his emotional fragility and his inability to reconcile the way he actually feels with the future that has been mapped out for him. 


What appears a simple set – a slatted wooden screen bringing the action right down onto the forestage (designed by Rosanna Vize and beautifully lit by Rob Casey) – gives a feeling of music hall or variety at the outset but ends up proving far more flexible when it opens up to signify a forest and the coast. 


It is perhaps inevitable that a play about a true but largely unknown part of history will seem didactic at times, and projection with real footage of the camps is sometimes hard to unpick on the fragmented set and doesn’t add a great deal. However, the show ultimately hangs on two strong performances – Thallon’s almost comic book Him who gradually becomes more real and reveals his insecurities, and Ferran’s fantastic transformation from the nervous but questioning young woman to a monstrous orator, channeling all that she has learnt about fascism. As a study in the effects of propaganda on the young, and the different ways in which it can take hold, Wohl’s play is frighteningly persuasive.


Photo credit: Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran in Camp Siegfried at The Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

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