Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany
Offending Shadows Productions @ Gluttony – The Bally
5:00pm, Fri 13 Feb 2015
So: it’s the official Fringe opening night, and – as to be expected at this time of year – it’s bloody hot. The Bally, a by-now familiar domed tent in the heart of Gluttony, has some new food stalls as neighbours, the (lovely) smells of which drift into the humid tent as we wait for Eleanor’s Story to begin. The perfunctory systems of ducting and fans are trying their best to cool the interior of The Bally down, but they’re barely effective… and pretty noisy.
It’s fair to say that conditions did not bode well for a contemplative and deeply personal piece of theatre.
Ingrid Garner’s initial appearance was tentative, timid, and maybe a little unconvincing, as her character Eleanor cowered from the sounds of explosions that almost drowned out the air conditioning; any attempts at lighting effects were rendered moot by the daylight seeping in. But with her small suitcase and fearful eyes, she really sells the sense of danger surrounding Eleanor.
But there’s an initially disconcerting sideways step as we are brought back to Ingrid’s American accent, to Stafford Connecticut, and the backstory that leads to a young Eleanor and her family moving back to Germany from America via ship. The Second World War breaks out while they’re in transit, dropping the previously comfortable family into a country committed to violence… nine-year old Eleanor’s initial complaints about the change of surroundings are almost playful at first, but as the War intensifies her experiences become more harrowing.
The narrative flips back and forth from a wartime city under siege to Connecticut, creating moments of levity and contrast. Those moments are most certainly required: there’s moments when young Eleanor encounters her first dead body, or when Russian soldiers are ransacking homes (and women), that the content risks being almost unbearable. It’s only at the end of the show that Garner back-announces the show as being based on the autobiographical writings of her grandmother, the titular Eleanor Ramrath Garner, as she opens up to thank the audience for coming; it’s then that the emotional weight of the performance hits me.
Whilst Eleanor’s Story appeared to be a relatively straightforward (but weighty) tale told without much theatrical fanfare, it was delivered with enough personality and conviction to move the audience. I turned to leave The Bally feeling theatrically sated, but on my way out I observed the crowd: clusters of Media badge wearers hanging towards the back. A quick head-count lead to the conclusion that Garner probably had only half-a-dozen paying punters in that show, and I had one of those broken-hearted moments where I felt utterly gutted for the performer: that they had booked this venue, in this timeslot, in these conditions. That this may be their best chance for a decent crowd. The Fringe can be cruel.
But then I saw a couple sitting across the aisle from the media contingent: an older woman weeping, being consoled by her partner. And I figured that their response would have more-than-justified Garner’s efforts.
— Pete Muller (@festivalfreakAU) February 13, 2015