Man to Man, Wilton's Music Hall, London, review: A compelling story about storytelling

This translation of Manfred Karge’s one-woman play has a sparkling central performance about grief, identity, and fiction, but somewhat disappoints with meandering closing scenes

Joe Vesey-Byrne
Tuesday 26 September 2017 21:08
Source of light: the central character Ella is played with brilliance by Maggie Bain
Source of light: the central character Ella is played with brilliance by Maggie Bain

Cabaret is never far from one’s mind during Man to Man, a one-woman performance based on the legendary Ella Gericke, a woman living in the Weimar Germany Depression who adopted the identity of her deceased husband Max in order to secure his wages as a crane operator.

Holding the stage for 75 minutes, Ella enraptures her audience with anecdotes and vignettes about her double life as Max.

Translated from the 1982 German play written by Manfred Karge, the play is a complex study of characterisation and the art of performance, and performance as a means of survival.

In reality Ella Gericke kept up the ruse for 12 years, and Karge’s play has been adapted from its original time frame to take Ella from the rise of the Nazis up to the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of history.

Played with brilliance by Maggie Bain, Ella in the guise of Max is a sparkling, heartfelt, and problematic character, who enchants the audience and brings them inside her fantastic conspiracy, despite the dubious moral choices she makes in order to keep her secret.

Ella as Max inhabits the role, and as time progresses becomes less and less sentimental about her former life as Ella.

Wilton’s Music Hall lends itself to the format of Man to Man, complimenting the play’s vaudeville elements and the aesthetic of Cabaret. The show adopts a variety of a techniques to tell Ella’s story, using puppetry, enchanting projections, and shadow puppets that transform the Spartan room occupied by Ella into a pub, a prison, a workshop floor, a lover’s bed, and a farmers’ field.

Ella’s struggles are portrayed with nuance and naturalistic emotion (Dee McCourt/Borkowski Arts)

In addition to Bain’s skills as a performer, the character Ella is a master storyteller, and the variety of forms on display keep the show from becoming monotonous, or a purely rhetorical exercise.

Bain acts out Ella becoming pregnant, and Max’s reaction. Her adoption of Max’s life not only sacrifices her own, but also her potential motherhood.

Knowing that all German “men” will be conscripted and face medical examination in the coming war, Ella’s logical step would be to readopt her life as Ella, and slip over the border, yet to do so would “kill” Max all over again. Bain’s performance is such that the choice, which on the surface appears easy, is believably difficult to make.

That Ella will do anything to survive, collaborate with any power that allows her to defy death and keep Max alive is portrayed with nuance and naturalistic emotion by Bain.

The actress herself merits five stars, in a performance about living a lie in order to stay alive, that has both the humorous elements of Victor Victoria and the macabre horror of The Talented Mr Ripley.

Her complete commitment on stage is strong enough that it is not undermined by presumably directorial decisions about pacing that make some later scenes set in post-Communist East Germany feel rushed.

Bain’s performance and the story of Ella outdo the narrative pacing that surrounds it. The final scenes meander as though the play itself is disinterested in Ella’s later life as Max and these last decades feel underdeveloped in stark contrast to what came before, which appeared to be attentively honed work.

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