For the first time after leaving college I am back in Hamburg’s Thalia Theater. Founded in 1843 you can spot a real Hamburg citizen by the way the first syllable of Thalia is emphasized. I cannot remember seeing a single play here which I did not like – with productions chosen close to the curriculum I have fond memories of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, Lessing’s Emilia Galotti and even Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. Once the key actors formed a Depeche Mode cover band and played in the upstairs bar which felt like a secret late-night gig. Like most German theatres here whole ensembles are employed rather than the venue being rented out to production companies. The effect is that several different shows can be played within a single week; checking the monthly playing schedule is therefore advisable.
Thalia Vista Social Club premiered here in January 2001 and has become a local institution. It is the evening before Christmas Eve, a full house and even weeks in advance we have not managed to get four seats next to each other. The actors play themselves but in a retirement home in 2040 – here they are looked after by Nurse Angelika who also entertains them with songs, sometimes sung for them, at other times encouraged to join in.
But the real party starts when Nurse Angelika is gone and the grand piano belongs to the residents: Instead of operetta they perform their favourite songs from when their youth: It is a musical journey from the 1960s sounds of San Francisco to “I love Rock ‘n Roll”, “Barbie Girl” and Madonna’s “Music”. Hearing Elton John sung by senile old people is not always beautiful but highly entertaining and a trio of men in their nineties performing “Staying Alive” give the whole song a different meaning.
We hear anecdotes from these gentlemen of the wild 1990s when the Love Parade pulled through Berlin – that gravity is something the piercing-happy youth underrated and that all the butterfly tattoos are looking like bats fifty years later. These few parts are the only ones you need to understand German for, the rest can be gained by English speakers even if not every German song is known.
When Nurse Angelica forces her six protegees to sing “O Retirement Home” instead of “O Tannenbaum” and reminds them constantly in a very cruel manor that their days are numbered, one might gasp. It is no wonder a plot is being worked out to murder her. Are you allowed to laugh about (and not only with) people at old age who are losing their marbles? I decide yes as we all might get there.
This is the Christmas edition of the Thalia Vista Social Club; the New Year or summer edition differentiate and is probably the reason for people returning to see this show – it is not a musical but a comedy play with music, constantly varied and adapted. I have not laughed like this in audience seats for quite a while.
And because it is Christmas the theatre asks for donations for their charity project: A café for both the people of Hamburg and those with a refugee background to just meet and talk. “Do you fear that some of them might be terrorists?”, one actor asks the audience after the applause has finally ebbed down. “We have opened a meeting place where you can go and actually ask them. Please go and ask each one if they are a terrorist if you are seriously worried. We do not know either.”
It is the actors themselves who are standing in the foyer and collect donations. Happy 175th birthday, dear Thalia Theater. Merry Christmas, Hamburg, and a happy New Year!
Thalia Vista Social Club by Eric Gedeon
**** out of 5 stars
Having by now celebrated its 300th performance, the show continues in 2019. Ticket from 25 Euro.