Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia by Josh Azouz. Almeida Theatre, Islington to 18 September 2021. 2**. William Russell

There is nothing more painful than watching a play misfire and a cast doing its best in the circumstances. Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia is a classic example of, in spite of an interesting tale to be told, a clever set and a cast doing as it is told by the director, who is suffering from a misconception – a kind of Brechtian alienation is the way to describe it – turning out to be a waste of time of classic proportions. The Nazis did occupy Tunisia in 1943 and the Tunisians, hoping for independence, went along with it.
We find Tunisian Jew Victor (Pierro Niel-Nee) buried up to his neck in sand – the German officer in charge of the Labour camp, known as Grandma (Adrian Edmondson) is a sadist, although played for high camp laughs. Youssef (Ethan Kai) is the Tunisian guard who has been instructed to go an urinate on Victor – and he does. He is sympathetic as they are both Tunisians to Victor’s plight and also gives him water to drink.
Act one is total confusion, in Act two some semblance of plot emerges as we find Victor’s wife Loys (Yasmin Paige) resisting the advances of Grandma – Edmondson is on top comic sinister form – which ends up with his being incarcerated in a chest while they discuss what to do with him. We also discover that Youssef has a rather nasty wife and is in love with Loys. T Victor, having escaped from the camp arrives and it becomes very complicated as he and Loys argue about what to do – he wants to flee to Palestine, she to take refuge in the desert, and then there is the problem of Grandma, not to mention that she has had a fling with Youssef.
Just what it all adds up is anybody’s guess – I suppose it is meant to be a black farce but that would require speed and precision and it lumbers along depressingly. Things are not helped by the fact that the actors seem to come from different places and the mish mash of accents adds to the general wish to get out of the theatre as soon as possible. It takes two and a half hours to escape.
There are moments, the cast is robust in the face of impossible odds, the set, an interesting collection of boxes which can be desert or Tunisian houses with a little moving around, is unusual and interesting, and is well lit. Above all the debates about what to do are potentially well worth listening to, but Josh Azouz has been ill served by director Eleanor Rhode – or perhaps not and she was just making the worst of a bad job.

Grandma: Adrian Edmondson.
Faiza: Laura Hanna.
Loys: Yasmin Paige.
Victor: Pierro Niel-Mae.
Youssef: Ethan Kai.
Little Fella: Daniel Radford.

Director. Eleanor Rhode.
Design. Max Johns.
Lighting: Jess Bernberg.
Sound: David Gregory.
Production Photography: Marc Brenner.

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