Review: The Greatest Sin Of All

A chilling night on the tiles

By John Jeffay, April 7, 2011

Victoria Baths, Manchester

Scenes from The Greatest Sin of All, exploring the Holocaust through a patchwork of personal stories

Scenes from The Greatest Sin of All, exploring the Holocaust through a patchwork of personal stories

This is a brave and remarkable venture. All the more so because it is a genuine, unrepeatable one-off.

A patchwork of personal Holocaust stories are woven together in a "promenade performance" around the faded splendour of the (sadly) disused 1906 Victoria Swimming Baths, in Manchester.

The whole thing was conceived, written, planned and rehearsed for a single day's performance - thereafter to be preserved in the memories of a few hundred spectators.

More than 40 actors are credited in the Schmucks Theatre Company programme, plus crew, for 20 rolling performances.

Co-director Nathan Shreeve says: "Once we had seen Victoria Baths, we … discussed which elements of the Nazi genocides we wanted to explore through drama, researched and found true stories, and then wrote the performance around the building."

This is not designed to be an easy ride

My fellow spectators, a group of 20 or so, seem uncertain and uneasy as we embark on this two-hour journey. It is not designed to be an easy ride.

We take our lead from a woman with a whistle, who marshals us silently from one unsettling scene to another. When she moves on, so do we, as though eavesdropping. Applause seems inappropriate.

We walk through the maze of green and cream tiled corridors and bare-brick basements and finally up to the wooden-seated viewing gallery overlooking an empty 25-yard pool.

This is where the grim finale is played out by half a dozen women in striped camp uniforms on the final leg of their death march, using silence, the only available weapon, against their tormentors.

Surreal, yes, but for me the most memorable and haunting scenes feature two impossible dilemmas: the Jewish doctor offered the stark choice between death, and carrying out "medical experiments". In a Turkish baths.

And the survivor whose cheerfulness masks an appalling decision forced on him by a Nazi commandant: fight his son to the death or see the rest of his family shot. The audience is huddled round in a small, darkened room and there is, physically and emotionally, no escape.

What makes this work is the combination of subject matter, venue and the sheer scale of the accomplishment.

What lets it down is the sense that the three co-directors - Jo Gerwitz, Kitty Critchley and Nathan Shreeve - may, for all their good intentions, have bitten off more than they can chew.

They rise to the challenge, bringing a fresh eye to a topic so vast, so thoroughly documented and discussed.

But while some parts are excellent, delving deep into some very dark places -life or death choices, the burden of survival - with great sensitivity, others are less so.They are rougher around the edges, part of a marvellous whole, but testament to the fact that each individual component has not been fully polished.

The girl collecting her teddy for the "journey" seems, dare I say it, clichéd. But then the ski boots her dad forces on her help save her life in a later scene.

The soundscape - a cacophony of marching bands, barking dogs, moaning, crying, hissing, choking, crackling flames, and HaTikvah - is a new take, though not something for your iPod.

In a soundproofed cell an exhausted woman plays her shrill clarinet struggling vainly to drown out a recording of Mein Kampf advocating euthanasia for useless members of society.

For me, old-fashioned as I am, the most effective scenes are those that are less experimental and closer to traditional theatre.

And to be fair some of the elements do thread together, with a narrative that clearly benefits from the atmospheric venue.

A successful Holocaust drama should, say the programme notes, leave the spectator "perplexed, wanting to know more although convinced that no knowledge can ever cure him of his perplexity. It must be a play that generates stunned silence".

As I looked around though, I was not always sure whether the audience was stony-faced because they thought they ought to be, or simply because they were a tad baffled.

Last updated: 3:16pm, April 7 2011