Review: Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia at the Almeida Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Adrian Edmondson and Yasmin Paige. Photo: Marc Brenner 

The problem that often befalls black comedies is that it is very easy to be dark but harder to be comic - jokes can seem to make fun of a situation, rather than satirising it or drawing humour from it. The good news is that Josh Azouz's new play, directed by Eleanor Rhode, doesn't fall into that trap. The play focuses on the relationship between an Arab couple and a Jewish couple living in Tunisia, whose friendship has come under strain due to the arrival of the Nazis.

Tunisia has been recreated in the Almeida. The sun is a taut, glowing drum hanging over a desert of plywood boxes that expand from a desert into a dining-room, and beyond, in a clever set by Max Johns with lighting by Jess Bernberg.

Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia is a bold title for a play, evoking thoughts of fairytales, and there is something of the Big Bad Wolf to Adrian Edmondson's continually scene-stealing turn as the self-proclaimed psychotic Grandma - a role that seems to have been written just for him. I struggle to imagine anyone else who could play the same level of absurdist-comic menace, and when the humour in the play really takes off it is largely thanks to him.

Ethan Kai and Pierro Niel-Mee. Photo: Marc Brenner

Due to a knee injury, Edmondson is using a stick on press night and sports a limp. If anything, rather than detracting form his performance, it adds to it - his menacing prowling of the stage now comes with the tap, tap of his cane. A primal drum beat to mark impending doom.

There is something of the chaotic energy of Edmondson's performances in television hits the Young Ones and Bottom here. His cast members act as foils to his energy so that, although sometimes touching the point of over-acting, it never feels over the top or completely excessive.

There are good performances throughout the cast, Ethan Kai and Pierro Niel-Mee convincingly play friends Youssef and Victor who have ended up on separate sides of the war, whilst Yasmin Paige is fantastic as the conflicted Loys. The best section of the play relies on the interplay between Paige and Edmondson, as the Jewish wife attempts to outwit the psychotic Nazi during an unannounced dinner visit.

However, the supporting cast are hampered slightly by the material they are working with. The role of Faiza (Laura Hanna) is underwritten, whilst Daniel Rainford does the best he can as Little Fella, a copy-and-paste version of a 'bad Nazi' found in countless films on Netflix. 

Adrian Edmondson and Pierro Niel-Mee. Photo: Marc Brenner

Despite this, and even with the absurdist comedy, the production is an often touching take on what makes 'home' home, what gives a person their identity, how we cope with that identity being diluted or marginalised, and how we manage relationships growing and fracturing.

To some extent the overarching theme here is examining how we deal with the choices we make, whether in war or in love - and thanks to Edmondson it's an hilarious ride doing so.

Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied Tunisia is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 18 September with tickets available now.

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