The Secret Letters of Gertie and Hen – Review by Susy Brett

The Secret Letters of Gertie and Hen – New Wimbledon Studios

The first ever preview performance of the new full-length play, The Secret Letters of Gertie and Hen, took place this weekend at the New Wimbledon Studios.

The Secret Letters of Gertie and Hen tells the stories of a German girl, Gertie, and an English girl, Hen, during World War II. When it becomes too difficult for the two pen friends to send each other letters, the pair vow to never stop writing – despite the fact the letters can never be sent. Through the words of two outspoken young women, we see two contrasting experiences of the war in London and Berlin.

For too long, World War II stories have been told almost exclusively from the male perspective. The Secret Letters of Gertie and Hen aims to re-shift that balance. It focuses on the women who were left behind: Gertie, Hen, their mothers and siblings. While a full-length play set mostly at home during the war sounds like it might struggle to sustain enough drama, the opposite proves true. On both sides of the war, we watch strong women supporting their families, helping those less fortunate, and taking control of their situations.

The acting across the board is solid throughout, with each actor performing with both English and German accents. There is some difficulty switching between the two at times, but that can be expected in a preview performance with some fast transitions. Particularly deserving of praise are the portrayals of the two mothers in the story – Natasha Stiven as Jenny and Maria Hildebrand as Maria. Both women shine in gut-wrenching and heartbreaking scenes as they fear for the lives of their families.

The set and costumes feel very country and period appropriate; with a split level stage meaning Gertie and Hen’s familial homes feel separate and different. At the heart of both homes is a wireless, which delivers both propaganda and news of the war effort. Even when these are not being used within the play, they are focal points of the rooms – drawing attention to the period and the desperate struggle of those waiting at home, waiting for news of their loved ones. The use of period-appropriate music and audio from real wireless broadcasts also adds depth to the play, although the latter could use being trimmed down in length.

The Secret Letters of Gertie and Hen is clearly a very ambitious new play. While the dedication to the period is admirable, it did at times feel like it was trying to shoehorn in every WWII topic possible. In one play there is the evacuation of English children, The League of German Girls, the removal of German Jews (and attempts by citizens to smuggle food to those in hiding), the reaction to Dunkirk, bomb raids, prisoners of war, refugees, disease, Chamberlain’s famous speech and propaganda aplenty including Mein Kampf, and more.

There are too many historical themes introduced to properly examine the impact of most. It also means the play does not always do justice to its characters: the many strong-willed women who it aims to champion. Time is drained from developing the characters of heroines Gertie and Hen, who do not have many other personality traits bar being headstrong and capable. This is disappointing because the quality is all there. Nevertheless, The Secret Letters of Gertie and Hen is a worthwhile project filled with potential.

The Secret Letters of Gertie and Hen will return for a new week-long run at the New Wimbledon Studios in November. 

Thanks also to Susy Brett who attended for us and guest posted. Find her normal twitter adventures at @susybumblebee