BBC Radio 4, 14 January 2009
When will British dramatists ever lose their preoccupation with Hitler
and the Second World War? This thought occurred to me as I listened to Smoke and Mirrors, the story of Helmut (aka
The Great Kalanag), played by Geoffrey Durham, who is about to take the stage on tour in early 50s America, when he is confronted
by Victor Bancroft (Alan Lidkey), a young man who reveals the seamier side of Helmut's past. It transpires that the magician
was a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, appointed chair of the German Magic Circle, who on one occasion performed tricks
for Hitler's benefit. He emerged unscathed from the War, but while doing so became involved in some financial skulduggery
which led to the disappearance of several caskets of gold and the trial (and subsequent imprisonment) of Bancroft's brother.
This unfortunate man was in fact innocent of any crime, but basically became the fall-guy to help cover up the American
and German government's involvement in the affair. Victor had come to visit The Great Kalanag to find out the truth about it.
Paul B.Davies's play was virtually a two-hander in which the truth about Helmut/Kalanag's
past was gradually disclosed, rather like a detective thriller. Nothing actually happens to him as a resuly; he continues
touring American halls while proclaimng contemptuously that "people will believe anything" and "all is vanity and illusion."
However he is not quite as self-reliant as he makes out; Victor cleverly outwits him to secure access to his dressing-room,
and eventually forces him to reveal his past. Helmut/Kalanag himself becomes one of those people he affects to despise who "will
At the end of this Afternoon Play I was left thinking "So what?" Helmut/Kalanag's
so-called 'crimes' were no worse than anyone else trying to make a living during the Second World War. And even if Victor
did outwit him, it did not really amount to anything, other than to show that everyone can play at being illusionists
at one time or another. The play was produced by Jolyon Jenkins.