Review: The Handyman Chichester Festival Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Ronald Harwood follows Taking Sides, his Chichester hit of last year, with The Handyman, another play that ponders the question of guilt and retribution for acts committed during the Second World War. In Taking Sides, the focus was on Wilhelm Furtwangler, the great conductor who remained at the centre of German musical life during the Nazi period. The drama, set in 1946, asked whether this supping with the devil represented a cynical careerism, a conveniently deluded belief that art and politics can be kept separate in a totalitarian state, or a genuine idealistic conviction that music enshrines values that Nazism was powerless to taint.

In The Handyman, the crime (participation in the massacre of 817 Jews in 1941) is a good deal less subtly monstrous, but arriving at justice is still potentially a tricky business because of the 55-year time lag. The accused is Romka Kozachenko (fine Frank Finlay), an elderly Ukrainian odd-job man who, since coming to England in 1947, has lived as the employee and dear friend of a family of well-heeled Sussex Catholics. The Army Major father, whom he met in a POW camp in Rimini and who eased his co- religionist's entry into Britain, is now dead. It's the daughter, Cressida (Kate Lynn-Evans), and Julian (Hugh Bonneville), her impatient, gas-prone derivative-trader husband, whose protected, opera-going world is blasted apart by the arrival of the war-crimes squad.

In fact, the guilty or not-guilty question, with the legal and psychological issues that arise from the lengthy gap in time, aren't really the drama's chief concern. The two Ukrainian witnesses (fellow soldier and a nun), whose concurring separate evidence we hear during the investigation, have no illicit personal reasons for falsely incriminating Romka.

More important, I believe, is what the upheaval exposes about the value systems of the people surrounding the elderly Ukrainian. Here, though, as with Harwood's previous play, an excellent subject is often crudely dramatised, a fact which Christopher Morahan's production fails to disguise. This is particularly the case with the daughter Cressida. Her increasingly unenviable role is to fulfil the prediction voiced by Frances Hunt's somewhat creepy solicitor that war-crimes investigations will be a red rag to the Holocaust-deniers. In the final dismayingly melodramatic moments, the mental strain unhinges Cressida, who effectively joins these nutters. One's objection is not that the pressure couldn't cause this to happen, but that her collapse is handled with such a point-making lack of subtlety.

Given the shocking behaviour of the war-time Pope, it's understandable that Harwood should have chosen to make the family Catholic and he is careful to discriminate between good and bad members of that faith. In many ways, the most potentially intriguing figure never appears: the Army Major father who seems to have befriended and sheltered Romka, despite knowing of his crime, because he saw him as his personal "channel of grace". To get into a mind which operates on that dubious basis would be more interesting than listening to the leadenly suspect moralising of the female solicitor. She opines, for example, that "war crimes" is an objectionable phrase because it implies that war is legitimate, only its excesses are reprehensible. But isn't the war against Hitler a case where such a proposition is arguably true?

`The Handyman' is as the Chichester Festival Theatre to 28 Sept (booking: 01243 781312), then moves to the Richmond Theatre, Surrey, 8-12 Oct. Booking: 0181-940 0088