It is set in Washington DC where affluent widow Fanny Farrelly (Patricia Hodge, languidly caustic) awaits the arrival of her daughter Sara (Caitlin Fitzgerald) after a 20-year absence in Germany. When Sara arrives with her husband Kurt (Mark Waschke) and three children, it is evident that they have fled Europe owing to Muller’s anti-Fascist activities.
Blithely unaware of what is happening in Germany, Fanny and her docile son David (Geoffrey Streatfeild) are comfortably combative; he is besotted with houseguest Marthe (Carlyss Peer), the unhappy wife of penniless, opportunist Romanian count Teck De Brancovis (John Light) and hopes to win her affection.
Attached to the German Embassy, Brancovis hatches a blackmail scheme that puts the entire family, Muller especially, in danger. At times, it comes across as a warped US version of an Agatha Christie thriller with added politics.
Director Ellen McDougall resists the impulse to semaphore parallels with any current political turmoil.
A simple drawing room set establishes the prosperous condition of the family and the minimal use of a huge screen conveys historical information, though it might have been put to fuller use.
As it accelerates from uncomfortable comedy-drama to something more sinister the initial lightness of tone pays dividends; a late sequence of shocking violence introduces the question of moral justification as well as leaving the family – and us – shaken and stirred.
- Watch on the Rhine at Donmar Theatre until February 4 Tickets: 020 3282 3808