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‘Mesmerising’: Lord Pickles reviews The Old Vic's production of 'Camp Siegfried'

‘Mesmerising’: Lord Pickles reviews The Old Vic's production of 'Camp Siegfried'

‘Mesmerising’ Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran play ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ in this story set in a 1938 American Nazi summer camp | image by Manuel Harlan

3 min read

Based on the true story of a sex-fuelled American-Nazi summer camp held on Long Island on the eve of the Second World War, Bess Wohl’s script may have occasional wobbles but the play is carried by the wonderful performances of its lead actors

On 20 February 1939, 20,000 American Nazis turned up to a rally at New York’s Madison Square Gardens to hear pro-Hitler speeches peddling Jewish conspiracy theories. The event was organised by the German American Bund, which described itself as “an organisation of patriotic Americans of German stock.” With an echo of the intolerance of the Third Reich, a Jewish heckler was badly beaten by Stormtroopers in full view of the audience; shamefully the heckler was later arrested by the police. 

So Camp Siegfried – located in Yaphank on Long Island, New York – is real enough, complete with an Adolf Hitler Strasse. There, our two characters – “Him” and “Her,” played by Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran – meet for the first time, in this play by Bess Wohl.

Ferran is mesmerising as a naïve self-conscious girl, pushed by her aunt to attend the summer camp. Lonely and out of her depth, she strikes up a conversation with Thallon’s character. He is, on the surface, the very opposite: cocky, self-assured, an old hand at the camp. Shouting over the top of a brass band playing German drinking songs he explains the ropes. There will be lots of physical activity: hiking, swimming, chopping wood and “being social.” The latter is a euphemism for procreation: American Nazis are just as keen as their German cousins on breeding more Aryans.

After they have engaged in “being social” the relationship shifts, Ferran’s character becoming dominant. Both are damaged people: his father beats his mother; she was groomed by a friend of her father. She is appointed the camp’s Youth Leader and delivers a speech. It starts like a head girl at speech day: “I love you all”. Gradually the fluency increases: “I love America”; “will not allow foreign interest to control America”; “Jewish interest” will not be allowed to dominate. This is the high point of the play, but here Wohl’s script starts to wobble with a heavy-handed swipe at Trump: “I believe America can be great again.”

Ferran and Thallon are wonderful to watch, creating chemistry and atmosphere on a minimalist set

The remaining quarter of the play treads water, with “Her” finding a kind of redemption in a cliché-ridden predictable subplot where she visits New York City.

Even with that qualification, both Ferran and Thallon are wonderful to watch, creating chemistry and atmosphere on a minimalist set.

The Madison Square Garden rally was the high watermark of the Bund. Soon it would be wound up by the FBI, its leader arrested on embezzlement charges. As the war progressed, memory of the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund quickly faded from the American consciousness. In his recent book Eight Days in May, the German historian Volker Ullrich recounts how allied soldiers were surprised how quickly evidence of Nazi memorabilia disappeared. Flags, party pins, books and photographs of the Fuhrer were whisked away without a trace. They were hard-pressed to find anyone who believed in National Socialism. I dare say much the same could be said of the attendees of that sex-fuelled August at Camp Siegfried in 1938.

I recommend colleagues of both Houses to see it, as it is a timely reminder that conversion to extremism is not a linear progression but an emotional jump.

Lord Pickles is a Conservative peer

Camp Siegfried: written by Bess Wohl

Theatre: The Old Vic, running until 30 October

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