Regulation 18b of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939 is a now little-remembered piece of legislation which came into force just before the outbreak of the Second World War. It enabled the British Government to imprison, without trial, “any person to be of hostile origin or associations or to have been recently concerned in acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm.” By 1940 some 1,000 men and women — chiefly Nazi sympathisers (such as Sir Oswald Mosley and members of his British Union of Fascists) and certain foreign nationals living in the UK — were being held indefinitely under the terms of Regulation 18b.
To put a human face on Regulation 18b, this new production from the Nottingham New Theatre imagines three women being interviewed by the officials charged with deciding whether or not they should be released. That two of the internees — upper middle-class wife and mother-of-two Violet Mortimer, and the scatterbrained actress Millicent Bowe — openly declare fascistic sympathies is startling to 21st century ears. In contrast, the early sections featuring German-born Johanna Mauer, who was working as a secretary in a Government department when arrested, initially tugs on our sympathies in a world where immigrants continue to be the subject of heated debate and abuse 60-odd years later.
Questioning them are Charles Lyon-Jones and William Thompson, an unlikely pairing whose good-cop-bad-cop relationship, as scripted by Jake Leonard and director Tess Monro-Somerville, highlights the conflict between focusing on the administrative process and remembering that real, living people are involved. Structured around a succession of scenes, we skip back and forth between the three women’s cases; yet, while keeping things ‘interesting,’ this hardly contributes to a clear timeframe. We’re told on several occasions that it’s been a long day but there’s little to indicate that those comments themselves all were said within a single 24-hour period.
The cast are uniformly good in their tight, RP accents (where applicable), though Ben Hollands’ deadpan turn as Thompson certainly gets the most laughs — and yes, despite the subject matter, there is some humour to be found here, not least when he’s left alone with the nervous chatterbox Miss Bowe.
This isn’t just a lesson about some historical curiosity; we’re clearly expected to draw parallels between then and now, in terms of publicly-expressed xenophobic attitudes and successive governments’ attempts to extend detention periods without arrest in the name of preventing acts of terror. What’s chilling, of course, is that as this play makes clear, the questioning really had little point; rightly or wrongly, these women’s guilt had been determined on the day they were arrested.