Gabriel, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, April 11 – 15

"I HAVE never played a Nazi before,” says Paul McGann. Given the range the actor has displayed in his career up to now, it’s almost a surprise. As McGann says, he’s played plenty of soldiers before – despite “not being soldier material personally” – and the two roles for which he is best known could not be further apart.

At one end of the spectrum there’s Withnail and I, the poignant and endlessly quotable low-budget film about two out-of-work, borderline alcoholic actors on a rural retreat (also starring Richard E Grant). On the other, there’s Doctor Who, the time-travelling prime time television programme. The former has amassed a cult following since its release in 1987, with superfans making pilgrimages to Sleddale Hall in Cumbria, the real-life cottage in which Withnail (Grant) drawls the deadpan line “I’m sitting down to enjoy my holiday”. The latter is as much of a British institution as EastEnders.

According to McGann, avid followers of both will descend on Devonshire Park Theatre for Gabriel, a thriller set in Nazi-occupied Guernsey in 1943. “I can already see from social media that Dr Who and Withnail fans are planning on coming. I just hope they don’t all turn up at the same time.” Gabriel was written by Moira Buffini and first staged in London in 1997, although upon reading the script for the first time McGann says that he could “almost believe it was written during the war – Moira’s done her homework”.

Confined to her seaside house, widowed mother Jeanne fights to keep her adolescent daughter Estelle and Jewish daughter-in-law safe on an island cowering under Nazi rule. McGann’s character, Commander Von Pfunz, is stationed in Guernsey and specifically Jeanne’s house although, as the actor points, out “Von Pfunz is a symbol for Germany and the house for Guernsey – the action never moves outside those four walls”.

The plot turns somewhat with the arrival of Gabriel, who is washed ashore with no memory of who he is. “Is he an angel?” asks McGann. Whoever he is, he presents a threat to Von Pfunz, who is already riddled with insecurities relating to a past trauma. McGann is relishing playing an ostensibly foreboding character with a vulnerable side. “He’s done something or seen something,” says the actor cryptically. “It would be anachronistic to say he has had a breakdown – people didn’t talk in those terms then.

“We definitely get the sense he’s trying to recover from something, though – he reveals as much to Jeanne because he starts to fall for her.” It would be a spoiler to reveal whether Von Pfunz’s affections towards Jeanne in Gabriel are reciprocated. One thing’s for certain, though – the islanders all live under a cloud of emotional turmoil. Although McGann had done his research, it was an email from a man who lived in Guernsey during the war that truly brought that sense of tension home to him.

“I’d mentioned on a radio show that there was a reticence on behalf of the channel islanders to talk about the Nazi occupation,” he says. “This man had heard it, and he emailed me to say, ‘you must understand it’s not about any shame of embarrassment. It’s more because it was so traumatic’.

“These people couldn’t see the end of it. I felt it was important to read the email to the cast.” This adaptation of Gabriel has been in process for about two years, so it is difficult to talk about its modern resonance. However McGann is right to suggest that “some of us are now asking ‘what constitutes a Nazi?’ A lot has happened in two years.”

Thirty years on from Withnail and I hitting cinemas and, truth be told, not making a huge impact, McGann still has fond memories of the cult movie.“Apart from Richard Griffiths (who played pompous thespian Uncle Monty in the film) none of us had ever done a picture – it was the first job for most of us. We’d have loved it anyway, even if nobody had been interested since, but the fact that it has had this second life has been lovely. Thirty years on people still want to see it and are still talking about it. It’s a real, real joy.”

McGann has clearly lost none of his appetite for performance over the years. As he adds a complex Nazi war general to his repertoire, he is still relishing the diversity of the job. “As an actor, that’s what you’re in it for – that’s the reason you do all of this.”