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Unsettlingly relevant journey to the heart of tyranny

Taken at Midnight, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, until Saturday March 25.

This is a play that gets to the heart of what it took for individual Germans to question and resist the rise of Nazi power. And that immediately raises another question for members of the audience: how far would I have gone in the circumstances?

Taken at Midnight is built around the relationship between Irmgard Litten and her son, Hans, a brilliant young lawyer who made the mistake of humiliating one Adolf Hitler in 1931.

Two years later, Hans, played by Gareth Withers (pictured above) has been moved from courtroom to courtyard – a prison courtyard where he is beaten and tortured. He is in “protective custody”, according to a Gestapo officer simply known as “Doctor” Conrad, played with chilling slipperiness by Jon Elves.

To try to get around the Doctor, Irmgard has to compromise by heil-ing Hitler and putting on a show of dignified restraint. Deb Relton-Elves gives a fine performance as a woman struggling to hold herself together when the world around her is falling apart.

By the time Irmgard finally gets to see her son, Hans has been moved on to Dachau. In a deeply touching penultimate scene, a self-assured and fiercely intelligent young man has been reduced to a bent, shaven-headed figure in striped pyjamas. Gareth Withers as Hans then rises even further to the occasion in a flashback to the court case where we have a glimpse of his cockiness as he shows off the lawyerly skills that led to his downfall.

Anne-marie Greene’s direction makes the most of a cleverly adaptive set that switches swiftly between the domestic, the official and the brutally judicial. In just a few years, the law has been reduced to the whims of one man.

At a time when right-wing populism is on the rise once more, Mark Hayhurst’s play seems more unsettlingly relevant than it might have been just a few years ago.

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Barbara Goulden: Another tour de force from actors at the the Criterion led by Deb Relton-Elves and Gareth Withers who take on the roles of real-life mother Irmgard Litten and her son Hans.

Director Anne-marie Greene is right when she says not many of us know the true story of Hans, the German lawyer who had the audacity to summon Adolf Hitler to court in 1931 to give evidence in a trial of SA men, and then to embarrass him under cross-examination.

This dramatisation of real events by Mark Hayhurst offers a fascinating, terrifying, and personal look at what happened to Litten after Hitler came to power.

The Criterion is the first non-professional company to stage this powerful play which follows unflagging efforts of Litten's well-connected mother to save him from his fate.

Really it's her story, told with elegance and so many powerful pauses, as fashionable Irmgard drinks tea with vacillating Gestapo officer (Jon Elves) and the action switches seamlessly from office, to lodgings, to prison.

There was some loss of dramatic edge during Act Two with a couple of overlong scenes, but none involving Gareth Withers, who commands even the smallest stage space he's forced to occupy.

As Litten rots in "protective custody" he seems to be forgotten by everyone except his mother - and a vengeful Fuhrer shamed in court by a smart-alec, half-Jewish lawyer who'd once joked that Germans throwing flowers in the path of the Nazis had left the plant pots attached.

Peter Walters: The tragic but inspiring story ought to be much more widely known than it is. People like the Littens were among the first to warn the world that something appalling was stirring in Germany.

The suicidal bravery of the men and women who stood up to Hitler, even in those years when most European governments still regarded him as something of a buffoon, has no real memorial, I feel. More prominent opponents of the Nazis, like Claus von Stauffenberg, architect of the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, or the theologian and anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are rightly commemorated for their sacrifice.

Yet the point about Hans Litten is that he was challenging that appalling ideology through the rule of law. The abuse of that process was one of the hallmarks of the Nazis, with their ghastly show trials, and now that the far right is once more a force to be reckoned with in Europe, we should be mindful of that. The name of Hans Litten should be on many more lips than it is.

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