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Incident at Vichy review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘a timely, focused revival’

Gethin Alderman, Edward Killingback, Jeremy Gagan, and James Boyd in Incident at Vichy at the Finborough Theatre, London. Photo: Scott Rylander
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This one-acter, written quickly by Arthur Miller in 1964 when the ANTA Washington Square Theater in New York City needed another play to follow After the Fall, was inspired by true events.

A Jewish man’s life was saved by a gentile stranger who handed him his own papers during a Nazi inspection in Vichy France. Incident at Vichy is less a moving celebration of humane sacrifice, however, than a complex examination of degrees of complicity in evil. The noble gesture seems tacked on at the end.

A line of men, representative of different types, among them an artist, a Communist electrician, an aristocrat and a doctor, await their checks – of papers and penises (for tell-tale circumcision). Miller was writing against the background of the Eichmann trial and, although Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is not quoted, the idea hangs in the air. Needless to say, rounding up those who are different, blaming an influx of strangers for social problems, seems bang up to date – as it probably always has. Yet this is its first professional London outing in 50 years.

Director Phil Willmott  argues that Miller was not aiming for “easy” catharsis as in Willy Loman’s death or John Proctor’s defiance. There is strength in this uncompromising approach and a disturbing sense of limbo in Georgia de Grey’s glaring white set, with its bare walls and simple integrated bench, but dramatic argument is best underscored by emotion.

Lawrence Boothman as the hysterical painter, Gethin Alderman as Leduc, the flawed doctor, and Daniel Dowling as a frightened boy contribute to this, although Edward Killingback could be more loftily superior as the prince. But it is Jeremy Gagan as the Old Jew, solemnly clutching his feather pillow, who is the wordless moral and emotional centre of the piece.

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Timely, focused revival of a rarely performed one-act Arthur Miller