Long in the making, this epic and challenging work of theatre is finally taking on an extraordinary metamorphosis, from song cycle to something that borders on opera. It’s not an easy watch, how could a work that straddles the genocides of Nazi Germany and Darfur and parallels the war in Ukraine ever be easy?

That said, there is magic at work here and the intensely researched and applied talents of creator Bill Smith with Angi Mariani, Bim Sinclair and music producer Julian Tardo are utterly compelling. The darkness of the subject is judiciously balanced by the heartfelt and moving lyrics based on the poetry of Tadeusz Borowski and other holocaust survivors.

Based on Borowski’s book, This Way For The Gas Ladies and Gentlemen, this musical drama takes the same name but builds on his experiences of Auschwitz and Dachau taking us forward to Darfur and the horrors of that conflict and brings us up to the present with the war in Ukraine.

At the heart of the story is Borowski, a poet who survives the camps in one sense but whose life is destroyed by his time there and his sense of guilt for his forced complicity in the genocide.

Art O’Hara is Borowski and he gives a breathtakingly moving performance as the poet, passionate and disturbing he brings the role to alarming life if the word life can be used in this story of death.

Running in parallel is the story of  Arnold Daghani, an artist interned in a smaller Nazi death camp and another survivor. Daghani is played by UK newcomer but Ukrainian star Igor Grohotsky, a performer with a soaringly beautiful voice, a voice that lifts Smith’s songs to an exciting new level, and a physical presence that is undeniably captivating.

Daghani’s wife Nanino is touchingly played by Lithuanian actor and musician Viktorija Faith again capturing the sadness of their story until finally they find a new home in Hove (actually).

Borowski’s wife Maria is performed in the assured hands and talent of Temisis Conway. Conway has already proved that talent in Julie Burchill and Daniel Raven’s Hard Times on Easy Street and this year their acclaimed Awful People. Here she is given full rein to explore the role and utilise her powerful voice, an extraordinary performance.

Andrea Barker plays Joan, the victim and witness of the terrors of Darfur. Her wonderfully soulful voice is matched by the sheer horror that she expresses as she describes in unguarded terms  what she has experienced.

And in the present and from the start of the piece we have Tetiana, played by Ana Petrenko, the modern Ukranian mother who tells of the devastating impact of Putin’s outrageous war on her homeland. Petrenko gives a stunning performance both dramatically and vocally but it reaches its peak when caring for her young daughter Lesya played by Veronica Holenko who has the most delightful presence and executes the most appropriate dance.

Jacob Fulton and Oscar Piatt play the remaining characters with skill and conviction and add to the full sound when the entire cast sing in wonderfully arranged harmony.

As a piece of writing this is taut, at times perhaps jumping around from time and place too much, but despite that truly compelling. The addition of dance from Ukranian Dance has moments that work and others that in my view do not, simply distracting and occasionally stealing the moment. The solo that falls at the end of Borowski’s incredible rendition of the title song simply steals that moment and not in a good way and the miming of dope smoking later is clumsy and unnecessary, but these are my views, others my disagree and perhaps better placed on a larger platform they might work better. And this leads me to scale, this is a magnum opus here played on a tiny stage. It needs breath, it needs space and it deserves both, which one has to hope this important work will be given.

Creator Bill Smith, AKA Latest Bill, aided by co-director Nataliya Valda have brought this work, long in the making, to life in a new production that has much potential with a story that must be told.

Andrew Kay

Latest Musicbar

29 September

Rating: ★★★★☆

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