Hitler Pizzeria reviewed by Kent Barker

The problem with Samuel Becket’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ is that you know from the outset your wait will be fruitless because the programme cast-list shows no such character appears.   Thus argues one of the participants in Hitler Pizzeria, a new play at the Horse and Groom’s Garage Theatre. Author John Knowles is clearly being playful, referencing perhaps the greatest work of the Theatre of the Absurd in his own Absurdist play.  He’s playful about much else besides, but let’s stick to Godot for the moment.  Almost the whole of the first half of Knowles’s work consists of desultory dialogue between three bored characters in a Pizzeria–cum-coffee shop in a nameless revolution-torn East European country. There’s a fourth character, the proprietor or waiter, who never speaks but who sports an iconic moustache.

Now the problem is that we, the audience, know from our programme that there is another character due to appear. We don’t know his name, but we are told he’s played by the excellent Hastings actor, Gareth Wildig.  So, not unreasonably, we feel a good portion of the play is spent Waiting for Gareth.  And pretty soon after he does appear, through the wrong entrance, dodging a hail of bullets, and brandishing a 12 bore shotgun, our play begins to evolve.

Not that there is anything wrong with the first part. John Knowles as sinus-troubled joke-telling Borko, Sidney Kean as ex-party-propagandist Alexandra and Patrick Kealey as the philosophising Damir are all excellent. As is Chris Dowell, the silent Fuhrer-channeling Emil who moves spectre-like among the tables refilling coffee cups and playing rousing patriotic records. The writing is witty, the characters sharply drawn, the performances assured, but where are we going with it all?  Of course in absurdist theatre you don’t have to be going anywhere. Often – even usually – the destination is not at all the point.  But when the zealot ‘Boy’ Gareth gatecrashes the sombre party, all fired up with revolutionary fervor, a breath of fresh – if decidedly chilly – air enters with him.  Soon the three cynical, world-weary coffee-drinkers are squabbling about the script.  “The writer has betrayed us” says one, glancing meaningfully towards Borko, signaling that Knowles as actor-dramatist is playing with us once more.

The production deserves, and I predict will get, a much wider outing, so I won’t give away the end  (or ends  – depending on the outcome of a participatory plebiscite of the audience).  But our young idealistic partisan rejects fence-sitting as unacceptable: “You must be on one side of the other,” he proclaims, “it’s not about winning, it’s about the moral imperative.” To which the three old cynics groan in unison.

Talking of cynics, on the way out one member of the audience was overheard describing the piece as “Last of the Summer Wine set in Sarajevo”. It was a good aphorism but doesn’t do Hitler Pizzeria justice. And as to the toothbrush-moustache sporting barista we are left to wonder: is he some authoritarian metaphor, or would we do well to heed the author’s warning from the start that this is, indeed, an Absurdist play?

Hitler Pizzeria by John Knowles, directed by Kate Tym, was at the Horse and Groom’s Garage Theatre.