Saddleworth Players

The Handyman: review

The Handyman by Ronald Harwood is a play with two themes: a did-he-do-it mystery with a deeper thought provoking pondering the question of guilt and retribution for acts committed during the Second World War.

In The Handyman, the crime (participation in the massacre of 817 Jews in 1941) is a potentially tricky business because of the 55 year time lag. It was written in 1994, just after the law changed and British nationals could be prosecuted for war crimes in other countries.

The accused is Romka Kozachenko (Played by Ian Perks), an elderly Ukrainian odd-job man who, since coming to England in 1947, has lived as the employee and dear friend of a family of well-heeled Sussex Catholics. The Army Major father, whom he met in a POW camp in Rimini and who eased his co-religionist's entry into Britain, is now dead. Ian played the part to perfection, pacing his reaction to the developing evidence well and maintaining belief in the nearly 80 year old Ukrainian’s life til the end.

Instead it's his daughter, Cressida (Clare Bennett), and impatient, gaff-prone derivative-trader husband, Julian (played by John Hoyle (and Hugh Bonneville in the original play)), whose protected, opera-going world is blasted apart by the arrival of the war-crimes squad. John plays the dopey idiotic husband well in the first half getting some nervous laughs from the audience for his crass gaffs “you don’t look very Jewish”.

There are two questions posed by the drama. The first is the guilty or not-guilty question, the did he do it? Legal and psychological issues arise from the lengthy gap in time, particularly for the two Ukrainian witnesses (fellow soldier and a nun, played by John Gillespie (the meanest Ukrainian Nazi who would have gunned down 6,000 Jews left in Ukraine today) and June Holmes (who paced her recollection to perfection). We hear each witness's concurring evidence during the investigation, and they have no illicit personal reasons for falsely incriminating Romka, but had time, and post-traumatic stress clouded their memories? Perhaps the translation would have given them still a slight Ukrainian accent to improve the credibility further?

John Tanner and Stephen Hendry played the police detectives from the war crimes squad with a pace that allowed Ian Perk’s Romka to become more and more distressed as they unveiled the more and more incriminating evidence through the second act.

The second, more important theme is what the upheaval exposes about the value systems of the people surrounding the elderly Ukrainian. This is particularly the case for daughter Cressida. Her increasingly unenviable role is to fulfil the prediction voiced by Rachel Hunt’s somewhat creepy solicitor (not Jewish but married to a Jew), that war-crimes investigations will be a red rag to the Holocaust-deniers. In the final dismayingly melodramatic moments, the mental strain unhinges Cressida, who effectively joins these nutters suggesting in a rage that Romka should use Holocaust denial as his defence. Only a good slap from her lawyer shut her up.

In many ways, the most potentially intriguing figure never appears: the Army Major father who seems to have befriended and sheltered Romka, despite knowing of his crime, because he saw him as his personal "channel of grace".

Steve Bennett (Creative Director at Playhouse 2 in Shaw) returned to direct at Saddleworth Players for the first time since 2008 and drew together a great cast performance for a very disturbing play.

The Handyman, performed by Saddleworth Players, at Millgate Arts Centre in Delph from 2nd April til 9th April.

Andrew Mann, Apr 2, 2016