Gretel and Ilse haven't a clue what's going on. With Russian artillery fire booming overhead, and their secretarial duties on hold, they sit in front of their typewriters in an airless concrete bunker under the Reich chancellery in Berlin. Somewhere upstairs, Hitler and his mistress are celebrating his birthday and playing with their dogs. Nobody mentions the war.
That's the exciting premise of MIchael Punter's play, brought to life in scintillating fashion by Victoria Johnston and Suzanne Kendall as the two hapless secretaries. The writing is taut and blends real historical detail with a tragicomic vision of how people get caught up in historical events. Are these girls, both enthusiastic Nazis, mere observers or are they implicated in the events they are writing down?
Gretel, a former dancer, and Ilse, once an 800 metre runner, are both half in love with the Fuehrer. Their myopic faith in Hitler ebbs and flows as the play progresses, and they dream of escape. The play has echoes of Waiting for Godot as they bicker, gossip, laugh, sing, dance and practise their Heil Hitler salutes.
Writing a two-hander like this demands great skill, and Punter knows how to bring each scene to a climax. The bunker scenes are interrupted by short flashbacks, including a great monologue scene where Gretel is interviewed by Hitler in person. The Fuehrer is never seen or heard, but his presence dominates the play in Christine Kimberley's excellent production.
I often hesitate to write reviews about actors whom I know, but in this case I have no doubts at all. Both Kendall and Johnston are terrific. This was my first visit to the Waterloo East theatre, tucked under a railway viaduct near the station of the same name. It's an ideal venue, with the noise of trains overhead complementing the rumble of artillery. Sound design, set and lighting are also excellent. The play runs Tuesday to Sunday until March 30.