English Schoolboys Death Hike Fuels Nazi Propaganda
“This is the problem with snow. It’s an invitation to violence.”
In April 1936, 27 English schoolboys from the Strand School in Tulse Hill went with their schoolmaster Kenneth Keast (28 years old) on a walking holiday in the Black Forest in Germany. They found themselves in bad weather and, against all kinds of local advice, took the difficult path and ended up in a blizzard.
Pamela Carter’s original play is based on these facts. It is played by three of the boys, Harrison (Hubert Burton) aged 14, Jack Eaton (Vinnie Heaven) aged 14 and Stanley Lyons (Matthew Tennyson) aged 13. Wearing school uniform blazers and light clothing, the older boys are in long trousers but the younger ones are in short grey trousers and sandals.
The boys explain that their school is fee paying, a day school, but not in the first league of public schools but their parents make small sacrifices to pay for their education. There is discussion about the differences between England and Germany and, as travelogues are heard about the area they are visiting, the boys go through athletic, gymnastic fitness moves associated with the 1930s.
We start to identify the differing personalities of the boys. Harrison is the eldest and most conventional, Eaton is rebellious and very physically active and Lyons is more philosophical but he is thinking about cake and his Jewishness. Eaton is the school boxing champion and he is all for taking on the Germans and reminding them who won the last war.
They talk about the Strand School’s Latin motto “Procedere” roughly translating as to progress, go higher. This becomes relevant when the master makes a decision for the boys to vote on whether they will take the easier route or the one across harder terrain. With macho resolve they all vote for the hard route. They face fog and snow which brings the opportunity to launch snowballs with the force of a cricket ball. The boys don’t have the right clothing or footwear for this sudden change of weather with waist high snow.
Lyons’s teeth are rattling, Eaton sings a song to raise their spirits. They see a man in uniform and panic thinking he is a soldier, but he is a postman who advises them to go back down the way they have come. The postman’s advice goes unheeded.
Local villagers send out an alert and most of the boys are brought back and warmed up with blankets and beaten with brushes to get their circulation going.
It is the Tour Guide narrator Eva Magyar who tells us what happens next and the aftermath of the memorials. The spin on the news goes out just before the Berlin Olympics explaining how Hitler Youth rescued the English schoolboys. Not true but photographs are taken of the survivors with Hitler Youth.
Oscar Toeman directs with great skill. By the end of the play we are mourning for the lost boys and sharing the grief of their parents. Rachel Leah-Hosker’s movement of fitness exercises adds the period feel and Elliot Griggs’s lighting through the fog convinces. I really liked this play with its outstanding performances from the three men playing boys and it reminds of the Orange Tree’s exceptional skill in their programming of exciting drama, old and new.
The Misfortune of the English
Written by Pamela Carter
Directed by Oscar Toeman
Director: Oscar Toeman
Designer: Jasmine Swan
Movement Design: Rachel-Leah Hosker
Lighting Designer: Elliot Griggs
Sound Designer: Dan Balfour
Musical Director: Naomi Hammerton
Running Time: One hours 35 without an interval
Booking to 28th May 2022
Orange Tree Theatre
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Orange Tree
on 28th April 2022