Willis and Vere, the farce comedy duo known for their award winning sci-fi spoof The Starship Osiris, are sick of being laughed at. Hence their follow-up show: A Serious Play About World War II, supposedly a verbatim play based on interviews conducted with holocaust survivor, Hirshel Günzberg – who is introduced, sitting in the front row. “The Holocaust is no laughing matter”, an exasperated George Vere warns us. As a result, we’ve got to be well behaved. No laughing. No interruptions. No rustling.

What follows is around fifteen minutes of pitch-perfect so-bad-it’s-good verbatim theatre, complete with grating violin music, physical theatre which feels ripped directly from a Year 11 drama class, and extremely dodgy Jewish stereotypes. Ultimately, a misplaced Justin Bieber cover song is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the elderly survivor; Günzberg stands up and denounces the play as being ‘offensive to the Jewish people and anyone who lived through the holocaust’ before collapsing from a heart attack.

physical theatre which feels ripped directly from a Year 11 drama class

From here, naturally, things spiral out of control, and the real show truly begins. The play delights in constant escalation, where ineptitude, desperation, and a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief propel the characters into increasingly ridiculous antics. After Günzberg’s apparent death, the cops are called, accusations of murder thrown around, and this in turn (with a little help from some superglue and an alleged naked, one-legged gunman) leads to a whole series of murders, cover-ups, and impromptu musical numbers.

This escalation of events requires a matched escalation of performances. Here, some of the supporting cast don’t quite make the grade, and the energy and comedy are sapped when they’re left to take centre stage. But Adam Willis and George Vere always return sufficiently soon to rescue them, both bringing freneticism and panic befitting the scenario.

it’s absolutely worth seeing during its limited run

Vere’s maniacal desperation and utter willingness to do anything to rescue his own skin is the main comic vein here. He’s constantly convinced that any scenario is rectifiable (no mater how serious), but perennially unable to pull off his increasingly extreme plans – and it’s extremely funny. Adam Willis is equally strong, driving the plot forward with a conflicted performance that balances self-preservation (and submission to Vere’s bullying) with a desire to do the right thing and hand himself in. There are more comparisons to be drawn here with Osiris, with both plays centred around and mostly supported by a similar core dynamic between the pair. There’s nothing played out about it, thankfully – the whole affair still feels fresh and original.

A Serious Play About World War II isn’t very serious. It isn’t really about World War II. If we’re being honest, it’s barely a play. Nonetheless, it’s absolutely worth seeing during its limited run at the Vaults Festival. Although slightly rough around the edges, it makes up for this with achingly funny moments and a superb atmosphere of mania and chaos – making it a worthy follow-up to their immensely popular previous show.


Catch Willis & Vere’s show A Serious Play About World War II at the Vaults Festival, or on their tour

Image: Willis & Vere

Theatre Editor
Matt has just finished four years of mathematics at University College London, and is now taking the logical next step of pursuing a career in theatre. As well as an avid critic, he is a passionate director and playwright, with work produced at the VAULT Festival, Camden People's Theatre, and The Shaw.

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