Man to Man, Wilton’s Music Hall, London ★★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Manfred Karge’s one-act, one-woman play depicts the tale of a woman in working class 1930s Germany who, after the death of her husband from cancer, assumes his identity in order to retain the income from his job. Initially thought of as an urban legend, the writer discovered years later that the story was true: the character here named Ella Gericke lived as a man for 12 years.

As told in Alexandra Wood’s translation, Karge’s tale is less factual, and more allegorical, using the fluidity of one character’s gender to examine our expectations of binary norms, and extending the character’s lifetime, from pre-World War II Germany to beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall, to provide commentary on the effect of totalitarian regimes on the working classes.

Richard Kent’s design initially looks like a grim, featureless room, perched at a precarious rake high above the usual level of the Wilton’s stage. With Rick Fisher’s frequently stunning lighting and some superbly integrated video projections by Andrzej Goulding, however, the set expands and contracts as needed: its backlit, translucent walls turning it into a cage, or the space becoming a war zone.

All of this is in service of the central performance by Maggie Bain as Max. Bain’s physical and vocal articulacy enables a distinction between the ‘real’ Max, portrayed as a gruff Glaswegian, his ‘Snow White’ bride Ella, and the version of Max that Ella creates after she is widowed. Delicate use of shifting accents enables Bain to portray Ella’s first assumption of her husband’s identity as a performance that she sheds in private, only for her male character to subsume her female side all the more as the years progress.

Bain’s experience with Frantic Assembly (whose artistic director Scott Graham co-directs this Wales Millennium Centre adaptation) plays out in the movement within the piece. In addition to the brutal physicality of her characters, Bain climbs the walls of the set, climbs into suitcases before reappearing at the door, or perches on an armchair which is hanging from the wall. None of this seems superfluous, all serving to expand and illuminate Max’s life.

The most touching moments, though, come from the subtle mix of lighting and projection. As Bain’s newly widowed Ella ponders what life would be like as a mother, the pillow she holds in her arms casts an animated shadow of a real baby. Although the tale hits other emotional highlights, none pack quite the punch of that first theatrical illusion.

Expanding the tale across multiple decades often requires huge leaps of time within a single breath. In the abstract world given to us on stage, that contributes to the almost dreamlike air that this entrancing spectacle provides. Whether it illuminates its subject as adroitly as it could is another question, but when a production is as visually beautiful as this that almost seems irrelevant.

Continues until September 23.

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