The love and courage of a mother and her son

Penelope Wilton in Taken at Midnight. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Penelope Wilton in Taken at Midnight. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Taken at Midnight by Mark Hayhurst, premiered at the Chichester Festival Minerva Theatre

The story of a brutal tyrant never becomes more real or singularly oppressive than when it is viewed through the individual eyes of their victims.

Taken At Midnight, a new play to conclude Chichester’s Hidden Histories season, examines the sheer wickedness of Hitler in the build-up to the second world war in the context of his treatment of the one man who held him to account.

It reveals him too as a man driven by the insecurities of petty spitefulness as much as ruthless and bloodied political ambition.

Hitler may have escaped cross-examination at Nuremberg as he was already dead. But in 1931 he was tested in a court by a brilliant young Jewish lawyer Hans Litten (Martin Hutson), when the Fuhrer was called a witness in a criminal trial of four of his stormtroopers.

Litten’s comprehensive exposure of Hitler’s lack of intellect that day in court was to cost him dearly - for he was subsequently arrested and moved from one concentration camp to another.

Throughout, he was sustained by the courage of his mother Irmgard Litten (Penelope Wilton) who pleaded his case with the Nazi regime with unfailing perseverance and love.

This is their story - a middle class Prussian family facing its terrors; and made all the more potent and relevant on the Middle England stage that is Chichester.

Miss Wilton - currently to be seen as the redoubtable Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey on ITV - gives a masterfully understated performance.

She is magnificent.

Shining through her immaculate diction, she exudes both the indestructible strength of Irmgard the woman and the inevitable vulnerability of a mother unable despite every effort to spare her son from his suffering.

Hutson, too, dextrously avoids the traps of self pity and gives a real and profound sense of this man of ultimately uncrushable principle.

The play is at its best when it focuses on the mother and son relationship and loses just a little when it attempts to give more of the broader political sweep.

But this is powerful drama showing the Minerva at its very best.

Director Jonathan Church is unerringly sure-footed throughout.

We have come to expect no less from him. With his team, he has taken the Festival Theatre in its year of renewal to new heights.

Having reviewed the productions there over many decades, I can state with honest certainty that the theatre is now at whizz bang peak. Never has the programme been so consistently strong nor the quality so overwhelmingly brilliant.

Taken at Midnight is another hallmark of that success.