Nestled within The Other Room’s current season is this hour-long piece of fringe theatre from young company CB4 Theatre. It isn’t the first time Back to Berlin has been staged, but it’s certainly the company’s most high-profile presence in Wales, an occasion they have risen admirably to. The majority of this devised production is set over several days in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and Europe changed forever. Bernhard Haas was one of thousands of people who travelled to Germany to be a part of history and, three decades later, his son Luke Seidel-Haas recounts that remarkable journey.
It’s impossible not to be swept up by the sentimentality of such a moment being passed down from father to son, and Seidel-Haas does a great job of adapting the original audio ‘interview’ with his father into a stage script. The story is told in a series of moving tableaus, and that structure gives the company some room to play with the form. The performers constantly break the fourth wall, often to provide exposition but also for moments of levity. Rather than ignore the limitations that inevitably come from being a small company, they actively encourage the audience to share in their DIY attitude, and there’s something very endearing about that.
It doesn’t always help the production, though. While this self-awareness allows the audience to connect with the performers, it’s sometimes at the detriment of the story. This is especially true towards the end of the play – when the narrative should be reaching its emotional climax, it’s undercut by the performers breaking character. These interludes are funny and very entertaining, for sure, but they’re also a little jarring and prevent the audience from getting the emotional release they’re teased.
The production is perhaps hamstrung by the fact that there is too much to talk about and not enough time to talk about it. Much of the middle section of the play reflects on the relationship between communist and capitalist Germany and, as an allegory on world politics today, it’s scarily relevant. But the time needed to properly flesh out that social commentary dilutes the central premise and a final musical crescendo ends up masking what is a somewhat anticlimactic ending.
This is fringe theatre, though, and these are the sorts of teething problems that a company of this stature should be having. Back to Berlin may have the flaws of fringe theatre, but it also has the strengths. The use of cardboard boxes is ingenious, especially in the way they’re used to create – and destroy – a wall. Sound and lighting design come to the fore when it’s important but they’re deliberately sparse, in keeping with that DIY ethos the performers foster. The performers themselves are superb. What ultimately stands out from this short play is the love with which it’s made – it’s there in the chemistry between the four actors, but it’s also there in the relationship they have with the audience. They’re all interesting, likable, talented personalities who care about this story and this project, and that shines through.
The DNA of companies like Burnt Lemon and Frantic Assembly runs through Back to Berlin, and those are good companies to aspire to. That they didn’t get it quite right structurally isn’t cause for panic, because what they’ve produced is a theatrical experience we don’t see too much in small-scale Welsh theatre. That should be applauded.