Dance: Badenheim 1939 Playhouse, Newcastle

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The Independent Culture
Badenheim 1939, Second Stride's new work, based on Aharon Appelfeld's novel of the same name, is about a group of middle-class Jewish holidaymakers who, either unable or unwilling to recognise the warning signs, find themselves detained in the Austrian resort town of Badenheim prior to boarding the trains that will take them to their death.

Like Appelfeld's writing, Ian Spink's direction has a broken yet consummate grace. Spink and the scriptwriter Sian Evans have plucked incidents from the book and created a beautifully observed picture of Appelfeld's cast of characters. The idyll of a Badenheim summer is effortlessly captured, the pace of events making you feel that this particular summer is both endless and final. Clearly, all is not well in Badenheim, and Spink keys into what Appelfeld describes as "the sweet illusions and insane optimism" of the Jews.

Entering into the resort's mixture of hectic activity and tranquil relaxation, we see Dr Pappenheim trying to deal with the hiccups of organising Badenheim's annual arts festival. Frau Zauberblit and her companions lounge around in wicker chairs; the conversation keeps returning to the exquisiteness of the local strawberry tarts.

Orlando Gough's music for an all-female ensemble grows increasingly Yiddish in tone and texture. But the partly operatic score also includes some finely sung passages which borrow their words from Appelfeld's text, as, for example, when Martin the pharmacist sings - rather than writes - a letter to his daughter and despairs of Trude, his sickly wife, whose waking hours are plagued by hallucinations and irrational thoughts. More transfixing, however, is the yanuka's (or child prodigy's) song with its melancholic rise and fall; and the twins' poetry recital - all staccato, monosyllabic unison.

As retired prostitutes Sally and Gertie, Lucy Burge and Linda Dobell are the liveliest double-act in town. As the head waiter and as Karl - a man obsessed by the survival tactics of aquarium fish - Philippe Giraudeau brings striking dramatic precision to both movement and speech. Brian Lipson's Pappenheim conveys the doctor's self-deception and extrovert personality. And Betsy Gregory gives a persuasive performance as the waitress who, in a drunken and fretful moment of exhibitionism, slashes at her thigh with a knife.

Second Stride associate Antony McDonald has designed a stage set of movable sections - walls, ramp and two-dimensional roofline - to eventually become the train that is to take the Jews to a new life in Poland, but turns out to be a fatal trap. Images and single sentences projected on the framing beams - "It seemed not like light but needles cutting the carpet into squares" - serve as indicators of atmosphere rather than plot for each of the scenes.

The summer seems to last for ever as the Badenheimers speak optimistically of their cold ("but it's a healthy cold") destination and take Polish lessons, psychologically blocking out the brutal reality that awaits them - just as the Sanitation Department has erected physical barriers to isolate Badenheim from the outside world. Throughout Appelfeld's novel you anticipate what will happen to the community of Jews; in Second Stride's production, their fate hangs even heavier in the air, the slow suffocation of Badenheim's pleasures a telling metaphor for the gradual extermination of a people.

n Riverside Studios, London W6, 9-11 Nov (0181-741 2255); Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, 23-25 Nov (01284 769505); Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 30 Nov-2 Dec (0114 2769922)

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