★★★ | Playing For Time

Amongst the horrors and inhumanity of Auschwitz, a small group of women are pressured to play in a rag-tag band, used for both entertaining the higher ranks of their captors and to march their fellow inmates into the fields to work and into the gas chambers to die.

Playing for Time explores the emotional toll on the women as they quite literally play for their lives whilst struggling with the ethics and morals of pandering to the theatrical whims of the murders around them as their fellow detainees are being massacred around them.

Based on the autobiography of Parisian cabaret sensation, Fania Fénelon, the opening scenes of her and her fellow Jews crammed into a cattle truck effectively conveyed the confusion, fear and false optimism of the passengers, followed quickly by a powerful, jolting and brutal arrival at Auschwitz which was genuinely unnerving to watch. But the play swiftly switches from the brutality of the camp to an examination of the inner conflict between an individual’s desire to survive and their desire to remain human. The internal struggles and external quarrels about the dehumanisation of the women in the band and the divide between their loyalties to those around them and their own selfish and primal instinct of survival are the focus of the wordy script. The dimly lit and smoke-filled auditorium provided an air of somberness and oppression, and the almost monochrome presentation of the piece (the black and grey sunken set penetrated by crisp, defined white beams of light) seemed to be a visual representation of the stark choices that go towards life and death in such a place, whilst the constant rumbles, cries, whistles and gunfire of the excellent sound design by Melanie Wilson constantly reminded the audience of the inescapable confines of the concentration camp.

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Arthur Miller’s seldom-performed play is a touch overlong, with a slightly uneven pacing and a group of central characters, performed by the predominantly female cast, which was not easy to connect with, although this could be as a result of the characters intentional or unintentional self-serving motivations.

The sound of Sian Phillip’s Piaf-esque voice accompanied by the accordion, harmonica or a gentle piano was convincing in terms of 1940’s cabaret and reminded you of how recent in European history the events you are watching actually were. The performance of Un bel dì (One Fine Day) from Madame Butterfly was inspired, and its delivery in the context of the surroundings was not lost on the audience. The poignancy of the aria’s lyrics describing “that thin thread of smoke rising over the horizon” beautifully reflected both the optimism and hopefulness of the original context of the aria and the hopelessness of life in the concentration camp. Perfectly timed to coincide with Arthur Miller’s centenary and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Playing for Time is more of an exploration of human emotion than a narrative piece of theatre and one with a technically impressive presentation.

Playing for Time is currently on stage at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 5th April 2015. For further details and tickets visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk