“Based on a true story”, those words always bring an extra layer of reality and poignancy to any drama. That is certainly the case with Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl in Hitler’s Germany, which relates the war time experiences of Eleanor Ramrath Garner, as seen through the eyes of the young girl she was at that time. Garner’s bestselling memoirs have been superbly adapted for stage by her very own grand-daughter, the actress Ingrid Garner, who, for the second year, brings this very powerful one woman drama to Edinburgh.
The staging is minimal: a background screen showing evocative black and white photographs, two wooden chairs and a trunk. However, this is all that’s needed for Garner to take us on an unforgettable journey. We are introduced to Eleanor, aged nine, living an idyllic all-American childhood in a white clapboard house. Her German parents announce a move to Germany and as the Statue of Liberty slips into the distance, there is a great sense of dramatic irony as Eleanor announces she will be back in two years, whilst the audience are all too acutely aware of the horrors that lie ahead. With war declared en-route, the family settles in Berlin, and scene by scene the full tragedy of living in wartime Germany unfolds. We all know how the tragic story, but this doesn’t detract from this gripping tale of Berlin’s destruction and the hardships its citizens experienced.
It’s a testament to Garner’s superb acting ability, that she is able to play multiple characters in this drama, effortlessly transforming herself into her no-nonsense mother or teasing older brother, complete with appropriate mannerisms and accents. The monologue moves seamlessly into dialogue as conversations are enacted. Garner’s diction is sometimes a little fast and gabbled, but she maintains a real energy, moving around the stage and using the minimal props ingeniously and with great effect. Be it an attempted rape scene, cradling a dying soldier or cowering from the bombs in a cellar, Garner transports the audience into these situations with superb acting and clever use of movement.
As is the case with Anne Frank’s diary, reports of the horrors and exigencies of war are mixed with the everyday angst of a teenage girl. This mixture of innocence with ongoing tragic events serves to heighten the pathos. In an era when the living survivors of the Second World War are dying off, this story, told with the freshness of youth, is deeply moving.