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Review: Gabriel at the Liverpool Playhouse ****

Belinda Lang (Jeanne) and Paul McGann (Von Pfunz) in Gabriel. Credit © Robin Savage

Writers and film-makers have long imagined what it would have been like if Britain had been invaded during the Second World War.

Look at the recent adaptation of Len Deighton's SS-GB for example.

But of course there was part of our (extended) island nation which did find itself under Nazi rule - and suffered great hardship as a result.

Moira Buffini's supernatural-tinged, Channel Island-set drama, revived here in a UK tour 20 years on from its first staging, considers the plight of the islanders and how they individually faced up to the occupying forces.

It's 1943, and Guernsey is under the German yoke.

Jeanne Becquet (Belinda Lang) and her female dependents have been displaced to a dilapidated farmhouse on their estate, from which she sells black market produce to the Germans, while daughter Estelle dreams up charms and spells to undermine the foe.

Robin Morrissey (Gabriel) and Belinda Lang (Jeanne) in Gabriel. Credit © Robin Savage

But their fragile equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of two strangers - the new German commander Von Pfunz (Paul McGann), and a mysterious young man found lying on the shore, who speaks both excellent English and German.

This production may be a revival, but it's not the only return to the stage. Liverpool-born McGann is back at the Playhouse for the first time in almost 20 years.

His commander is no dead-eyed, evil Nazi stereotype. With his bursts of giggling glee, his lust for poetic 'truth' and nuanced mannerisms, he is something all together more sinister, creepy...and dangerous.

Whereas once upon a time McGann might have played the titular character, here the role of the angelic-monikered Gabriel is inhabited by another Liverpool actor, Robin Morrissey, who is well-known to Everyman and Playhouse regulars - although it's less likely they would have guessed his impressive aptitude for flawless conversational German.

Paul McGann as Von Pfunz and Venice Van Someren as Estelle. Credit © Robin Savage

Despite their strong performances however, Gabriel is a play that really belongs to women. It's written, directed and designed by women, and at its heart are four strong female characters, all struggling to do the best they can in impossible circumstances.

Lang's Jeanne has a carelessly glamorous and steely carapace (on film you can imagine her being played by Bette Davis) which she uses to hide her fears, while Venice Van Someren is delightfully believable as the young, energetic Estelle.

The tension in this powerful, suspenseful drama is concentrated by it being played out in the claustrophobic confines of the farmhouse interior, with the outside world a lowering threat beyond the half-finished walls.

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