Review: Arena Theatre’s production of Bent

Max and Horst in Bent

An all-male cast from Arena Theatre put on a production of Martin Sherman’s Bent at Bournemouth’s Little Theatre  and what an astounding show it was.

The company’s director, Hayley Tucker, is an avid actor herself and was part of the ensemble in Arena’s Brief Encounter.

Hayley has now directed three shows for the company, including Bent,  The River in 2014 and Two in 2015, stating that: “Arena appealed to me because of their contemporary style – they do plays that need to be told.”

Bent is a play that deals with the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust – a topic which is still seen as a sensitive one.

When asked about why she felt this play is still perceived as controversial, Hayley replied: “I think it’s controversial because we don’t like being confronted by what was done”, however she believes that “any play that deals with the Holocaust message should be told”.

The rehearsal process, according to Hayley, has been an emotional one who has “lived and breathed this play for the last six months”.

The script was given to her in the summer of 2015 where she fell in love with it and rehearsals began in November.

Since then, the cast, crew and director have worked tirelessly to perfect their production.

The play was divided into two acts –the first act begins in a very light-hearted way with Rudy, a dancer (played by Charlie Hall) revealing to a very hungover Max (played by Daniel Withey) his drunken antics from the night before.

The scene is full of humour; there were lines from both characters that evoked a roar of laughter from the audience.

The pair are joined onstage by Wolf (portrayed by Tom Adamson) and we learn that this sparsely clothed gentlemen was brought home by Max the night before.

The interactions between the three of them is kept upbeat, with Rudy being comically shoved off his seat by Wolf who begins to tend to his flowers in a sulk.

It is amidst this joking and laughter that the audience are reminded of the time in which the play is set.

The trio are joined on stage by Nazi officers (played by Adam Fellows and Grae Westagte) who beat up and kill Wolf.

This dramatic encounter contrasted jarringly against the laughter of a few moments before and provoked a gasp of shock and stunned silence from the audience.

Max and Rudy are encouraged to leave Berlin for their own safety by Greta (played by Chris Edwards), the manager of the bar in which Rudy dances. And so begins their life on the run.

After this, Max meets with his Uncle Freddy (played by Grae Westgate) and we learn that Rudy and Max have been on the run for two years and have been living in tents in a forest.

Freddy provides Max with papers to allow him to escape. However, without papers for Rudy too, Max refuses to take them.

Rudy (played by Charlie Hall) and Max (played by Daniel Withey) in Bent.

Back at the colony, Rudy is eating apples and cheese, a meal he managed to afford by digging a ditch.

Rudy is evidently displeased with their living conditions, repeatedly referring to the forest as a jungle and saying “I’m a dancer, not Mowgli”, much to the amusement of the audience.

As the pair are discussing their aspirations for the future, Rudy and Max are arrested and find themselves on a train heading for a concentration camp.

Rudy is seized by the officers and Max is forced to beat him to prove Rudy is not his friend.

Then Rudy is dragged backstage where is he, presumably, beaten again, whilst Max and Horst (played by Ryan Gregg) are left to listen to the torture.

Rudy’s harrowing screams echo through the auditorium and Max is desperate to help Rudy but Horst warns him against it for fear of his own safety.

Rudy’s screams were so piercing that they rang in my ears and brought tears to my eyes. It was at this moment that I began to fully understand the situation in which this characters, and in fact real people, lived and I found this part of the play incredibly powerful.

I found Horst a very solid character – he came across as a mature and grounded, which, in turn, meant he was able to keep Max grounded too.

Horst had this fighting spirit about him that meant he was always looking on the bright side, despite all the atrocities happening around him and I found this positive attitude in the most negative of situations really uplifting.

There was a huge contrast between the acts; the first being full of movement, scene changes and humour whilst the second was set solely in the concentration camp with Max and Horst are forced to move rocks to and fro across the stage for the entire second act.

This worked really well as it demonstrated the enclosure the characters were experiencing and demanded that the audience and the characters pay attention to their feelings.

The message behind the story itself is a positive one, despite its dark setting.

One of the Bent’s main themes is accepting who you are as a person and this is epitomized right at the end of the play when Horst has been killed and a distraught Max removes Horst’s shirt which bears a pink triangle and proudly puts it on in front of a disapproving guard (played by Brian Woolton).

The tears were flowing in abundance by this point– I was just so touched by the personal growth of Max and it is something I will take away into my own life.

The casting of Bent was absolutely spot on – each actor appeared confident in their roles and made them their own. There was also really good chemistry between all the actors, especially the leads; they clearly got on well with each other and were comfortable with one another on stage.

Greta (played by Chris Edwards) in Bent.

There were a few actors that really stood out to me, the first being Charlie Hall who played Rudy, Max’s companion in the first act.

Rudy was possibly my favourite character – I loved his sassy attitude and some of his quips, like when he said “I don’t like pain, it hurts”, had me howling with laughter.

I found Rudy a really likable character and I was genuinely upset when he is killed during the play.

The next actor I really liked was Chris Edwards who played Greta.

Chris graduated from Chichester University with a First Class degree in Musical Theatre and Bent was his first performance with Arena.

Greta deals with the situation of the time in a very matter-of-fact way and seems to be the one to help Max and Rudy make their decisions, if a little forcefully.

Chris mastered his character’s assertive yet caring and funny nature and I found myself really warming to him.

But without a doubt, the actor that stood out to me the most was Daniel Withey. Daniel has performed with Arena once before as Bobby/Bill in Brief Encounter.

Daniel really took on board Max’s internal conflict between who society wants him to be and who he really is and there were moments in the play, such as when he is talk to Horst on the train, that you could see what a tortured soul Max is.

There was so much energy and passion in his performance that he was an absolute pleasure to watch, and I predict Daniel will go far in his acting career,

In the future, Hayley plans on continuing her directing career and continuing her time with Arena, either acting or directing.

Speaking about the company, she said: “They’ve got a lot of talent and they put on really good shows that deserve an audience.”

Hayley feels acting and supporting local theatre companies is very important as: “It’s a way for people to tap into their confidence and it’s a really good thing for therapy, rehabilitation – it just gives so many people so many options and people should go out and see more.”

When asked about what message Hayley would like the audience to take away with them, she replied: “Just to look at their own humanity and their own beliefs about what’s right and wrong and maybe just approach life in a different way and accepting who they are.”

I most definitely have taken on board the message of Bent – I was taken on an emotional journey and came out of it feeling inspired.

My biggest congratulations go to the cast, crew and director Hayley Tucker for putting on a spectacular production to deliver such an important message.