cast of flies

Picture: Anthony Robling   

Lord of the Flies

Coventry Belgrade


William Golding’s horrifying, seminal novel Lord of the Flies was published in 1954. It fast became one of the most popular and widely-read books in English schools, often as an examination set-text.

Riveting, challenging, disturbing, and featuring a superbly depicted set of characters, it recounts the story of how a disparate group of schoolchildren escaping from a catastrophic (Golding conceived it as nuclear) world war survive a plane crash and are washed up on a (presumably Pacific) desert island, only to divide into factions and descend into violence, death and despair as their humanity is overtaken by destructive instincts and a depraved lust for power.

It yielded two films in English using casts of boy or young actors (an all-girl variant/adaptation was mooted, rejected and is now going ahead). The first, in black and white, directed by Peter Hall’s inspirational Royal Shakespeare Theatre colleague Peter Brook, rehearsed 1961-3 and released in 1964, has become a legend in its own right. A second treatment by then 30-year-old English screenwriter and director Harry Hook appeared in colour in 1990. In between, a fresh version was made and filmed in The Philippines (in Filipino) with some success.      

Matthew Bourne and Scott Ambler choreographed a ballet based on the book for their multi-award-winning company New Adventures in 2014, seen at the Birmingham Hippodrome that year (4 star review by Roger Clarke, ‘The Ballet of Barbarism’ in May that year).

The stage adaptation, by the fabulously prolific and successful, English novelist, playwright (24 plays) and initially BBC Arts producer Nigel Williams (b. 1948), is still the go-to version for those presenting it in theatres today. It showed its huge merits not long ago in the Midlands when used to deliver a not perfect but absorbing all-young, mixed-gender production at Redditch’s Palace Theatre (which I reported on for Behind The Arras, also in 2014, soon followed Jeff Grant’s 4 similarly star review of a phenomenally setted, staged and acted regional production in 2015).

Redditch’s treatment had many virtues. However the Belgrade’s proved top-quality: pretty much superlative from start to finish. Ideally it deserves five stars, but for various reasons below, four will again suffice.

There were many heroes of this co-production with Leeds (former West Yorkshire) Playhouse and the Rose Theatre, Kingston (its auditorium modelled on the original Elizabethan Rose Theatre south of the Thames).

The acting, the lighting, the music and, in its own way, the simple, palm tree-guarded setting all came up to that high grade. But easily the highest accolades must go to its Director, Amy Leach. Here was a cast, not actually of children, but of patently young actors, so that to imagine them as 7 or 8 (choir probationer age) to 13-year-olds was perfectly possible.

But the inspired, probing detail in the overall visualisation, in the acting, in the cast’s use of Max Johns’ surprisingly versatile multi-level set, was staggering, and in large measure this continued insight into how to evolve and present character – the innocent, the decent, the volatile, the nervous, the torn, the brusque, the slowly corrupted, the downright villainous - cannot be down to this fine ensemble’s individual imaginations alone, acute though those patently were.

The invention, creativity, finesse and incisiveness of Leach’s production at every turn must virtually all have been instilled thanks to her perception as to what would work most effectively, what would impact the greatest, and what would differentiate character most tellingly. And every second of this smooth, fast-flowing production denotes incredible energising preparatory work in the rehearsal room. Loose ends? There were none. Emotional intensity? There was loads. Moments of bathos? None, except where some deceleration is actually demanded by the script, and was neatly achieved. Pacing? Superlative. Blocking? First-rate. Commitment? Not surprisingly, astounding.

At Redditch, the ‘bad’ (in fact downright evil) boy Jack, the self-opinionated church or cathedral Head Chorister, was played by a girl. Tall, aptly red-haired, sly, nasty, imperious. Here, it was Ralph, who in Brook’s film seems impeccably upper-class, prep school, school flannels and snake-belt, fair haired, his frail beauty underlining his vulnerability, who was played by the girl.  

Ralph is the good boy: like all 12-year-olds, a fusion of the naïve and the already emergent, the responsible and the uncertain, puzzled but perceptive. What Golding’s original shows us is the perplexity of the boy who starts as nominal leader and ends being hunted (almost) to the death.

While almost all, except Piggy and the doomed Simon, waver (Nate Leung’s Bill for instance – good, or bad?), Ralph is faced with the biggest dilemma: how to react to his acquisition, then loss, of leadership; how to keep his diminished (all too soon diminutive) group together, secure and fed; how to reassure and comfort the youngest; how to address and combat his own fear; how to face up to the opposition; how to stay alive.

So, his moods must change. He must reveal the child, yet expose the nascent man (his father is himself a senior naval officer, in which case a coincidence with the play’s ending, where authority and restraint are instantly restored); he must be bold, bright, confused, assertive, collaborative, independent, tentative, indignant, terrified.  


Angela Jones as Ralph. Picture: Olly Rhodes

I don’t think (like Kyle O’Gara, Leeds-based) Angela Jones or Leach herself quite penetrated or solved, this crucial transitioning. The situation changed, but Ralph here (till the death-rattle final chase) on the whole doesn’t. Jones brought a delightful optimism, patent courage, kindness and warmth, generosity, daring. But not all of the shifting moods or characteristics above. An enchanting performance. But LotF is about enchantment set against utter disruption and collapse.

One intriguing detail regarding Ralph is that he and his team – even the twins - join in the killing of Simon. It’s in the book. They are all, not just Jack’s violent breakaway mob, deceived into believing they are massacring not a boy, but a pig. ‘Kill the pig!’ goes the famous, increasingly terrifying chant. Or a fantastic monster (whose existence Ralph denies, and which to some extent the staging never quite manages adequately to explore: hog’s head? Dead airman? They are all blinded by belief. Not responsible (one might argue in defence) for their own actions. An apparition? Misconception? Heat-stroke?   

Charles Silver, curator in the Department of Film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA, which includes moving pictures) wrote that the film is "about anarchy and how that thin veneer which we display (wear) of what we refer to as 'civilization' is threatened by the attractive clarion call of bestiality and its accompanying hatred”.  

Bestiality. Yielding hatred. Patrick Dineen’s Jack seems destined for this from almost the first time he and his little crew of chanting choristers appear. Jack takes just seconds to mock Ralph, Piggy, the huge shell, sea-snail or “conch” (pre-Latin and -Greek “shellfish”) onto which the right to speak is attached, and any form of leadership other than his own, and to reveal his true colours. If it’s tempting to wonder if Jack might have made a positive leader had he not been induced to defect, there’s little in the book or the play to suggest it.

At the very least, he’s a sort of incipient Flashman. A Bill Sykes. In between, cynical, warped, vicious, criminal, abrasive. At worst, the devil incarnate. Tall, as if the eldest (even though he and Ralph are broadly the same age), Dineen paraded all of this, and more. It’s not so very difficult to portray the utterly unscrupulous, domineering, caustic, tainted, crooked, blighted. Not just the ‘chief’, but a bully intolerant of the slightest insubordination. A dictator who effortlessly imposes his will. (A strong head chorister, perhaps): ‘We stay up here; you stay down there’. But degenerate, defiling, perverting: dissentients are to be obliterated, and the obedient mass drawn into the killing. These are subtler characteristics to find in oneself as an actor: this actor delved deep and found almost all of them. 


Patrick Dineen as Jack and Angela Jones as Ralph. Picture: Olly Rhodes

Jack is human corruption incarnate. The point of Golding’s book, as grasped by the editor at Faber & Faber who accepted it after it had been witheringly rejected by a colleague and spurned by a host of other publishers, is as Silver put it above, is that it’s an expose of humanity itself.

It may be about how children might behave (as Golding claimed), but their actions, divisions, incipient then deep-rooted enmities, aggression, animality (although that alludes to the killing to eat, not the protective, nurturing or often group instinct of animals), and ultimate brutality (the word most often used of the explosive story).

Explosive, to put it mildly. Since the mid-1970s and early 1980s, mainly in America, individuals, pressure groups and even entire layers of bureaucracy have been campaigning to have the book banned from schools, colleges, libraries, bookshops… the list goes on. It’s, I suppose, an early instance of Woke. Censorship, the Lord Chamberlain, British Board of Film Censors, Royal or Imperial prerogative and what-not, has been around possibly for ever. But the difference now is that the bleatings – albeit sometimes indeed valid or at least cogent – are so often conceded to. We acquiesce in our own censorship.

The American Library Association (ALA)’s Office for Intellectual Freedom maintains a list of books that have been banned and/or “challenged” over a long period. Some – no, most – of its ‘100 most frequently challenged books’ records some four decades (alluded to in Jeff Grant’s review) are as much astonishing as distressing. The  distress is not so much that of, however valid, the complainants, who sometimes (in several American states or townships) have succeeded in getting books, including many acknowledged gems, removed from the shelves, as of the vast majority who value and treasure such stories: for whom they exemplify the best in literary achievement, and the most inspiring of stories. Huckleberry Finn; Of Mice and Men; The Catcher in the Rye; Robert Cormier’s exemplary The Chocolate War; To Kill a Mockingbird; 1984; The Kite Runner; sundry Roald Dahl, have all come under the killjoys’ axe somewhere, even widely, across the States.  

So for protesters in Iowa Lord of the Flies ‘is too profane, lurid, defamatory to God, women and people of disabilities to be read by kids at school’. OK, by five-year-olds, principally sex education books where sex is paraded and blatant. Or those where prejudice is explicit. But thereafter? Nine to teenage? Read it and make up your own mind. The banning culture is not just a nightmare; it’s an insult to human intelligence. Texas; South Dakota; North Carolina (‘demoralizing’); Arizona; Florida. And so on. Sometimes just in one institution; but this habit is more infectious than the supposed infections. In 2019 Lord of the Flies was reported as the eighth-most frequently challenged book in America.


Adam Fenton as Simon. Picture: Anthony Robling

Yawn. How inspired productions like Amy Leach’s at the Belgrade blow such views (‘a pro-slavery ideology’) into oblivion. Let’s have some of those strengths:

Chris Davy’s Lighting felt masterful. Especially effective, as scenes evolved, was the visual intercutting between the cowed but ‘good’ group, with their (not too well suggested) tarpaulin-like cave hideout front stage left, and the hostile mob, who in the book make their base on a rock named the ‘castle’, gathered like flies on Johns’ multi-level grey quasi-stone elevations. But the picking out of groups or huddles or individuals (Simon, perhaps especially, and latterly, Simon’s corpse) seemed to get the balance right every time. Red (dazzling scarlet, to evoke fire or also terror) was used pointedly, but not excessively. As always, one must applaud too the technician operating the sound and light board, those incredible contraptions with so many knobs and buttons and slides they look mind-bogglingly complicated; and probably are.

OK, so although - following a massive explosion - a chunk of fuselage plummets down to the stage (how then had the children escaped?, the set doesn’t upfront the terrifying image of the crashed plane itself, as many productions have done with awesome success, the wreckage dominating so that the children act within a kind of grisly broken egg, reminding one permanently of how they came there. But here you can almost feel the sand. It’s a different viewpoint – and a more than acceptable one.

Simon is possibly the most difficult character a) to visualise b) to create c) to direct. It is deliberately so. Simon is the most wistful, elusive, most imaginative, exploratory, most unearthly, and – as is gruesomely proved – most vulnerable. Adam Fenton generates all of this, and more. He is [they are] indeed funny – ‘weird’, ventures Jack, in one of his least offensive utterances. The script seemingly does not follow him on his explorations: a drawback, as they are important, and they affect and enhance the pacing of the whole. Thus what stands out is Simon’s murder: the music eliciting a slow four-note chaconne as, in horrifying slow motion, he is speared and battered to death.

A good moment applaud John Biddle’s Sound design and composition. We sense this is going to be well-judged from the outset, where he makes use of Chopin’s famous Nocturne in C sharp minor, with its distinctive chromaticism, to set the scene at the start (it returns to great effect near the end).

The subtlety of Biddle’s fast ostinatos, piercing staccatos, jagged passages for piano and strings, introduction of searing (or soothing) descants, quite possibly, I would guess, in part deriving their strength and impact from the semitonal drops of the initial Chopin, was quite remarkable. It enhanced the show no end.   

One of Golding’s most interesting characters is Roger (Jason Battersby). Certainly he was magnificently played here. However now is the time for a bellyache. How long will it take the Belgrade (and some other companies, professional and less often, amateur) to grasp the screamingly obvious fact that they should resume producing printed Programmes? One of the delights of ordinary folk making visits to the theatre, sometimes for the first time, more often seasoned theatregoers, a treat is to be handed something special and additional to keep and treasure; at the least, to refer to on the night. Who plays whom? Who composed the music? Where is the (full) synopsis?


 Jason Battersby as Roger. Picture: Anthony Robling

They are more than happy to pay. I attended an (amateur, local) opera in Hinckley last week. Charming Programme: £2. Or else, charge £3. Or £5. The audience should be given the option. It may be difficult to anticipate or project audience numbers far in advance, but not in the few days before opening night.

For this Lord of the Flies this case, a full Printout was available (from Kingston). Not producing a printed Programmes is, I suggest, a dereliction of duty. Possibly – dare one speculate? – insulting. Courage and leadership are needed – finally - on this important aspect.  On the Rose Theatre’s website the first thing it mentions is ‘Click here for Digital Programme’. Ten pages of beautiful colour photos, enchanting cast biographies, fascinating background detail about creatives. A treat to read, this in addition a legitimate part of young actors’ publicity. They need it. Even this sort of ‘web’ Programme remains a second best. But it’s something.

Back to Roger. He’s interesting above all because he’s the main one who hovers on the right side, part-instantly but part-gradually swaps allegiance, and ends up as Jack’s chief henchman, executioner and virtual successor. Here too, catching the characterisation, illustrating the hesitation and initial ambivalence, capturing the transition, displaying the sinister change in loyalty and deadly determination to prove himself, offers great opportunity for an actor, and an essential ingredient in this morality tale.

He’s even realistic at the outset. ”Why should they even bother to follow us? They’re all too busy killing one another.” Prescient. Open-shirted, sardonic, alienated. It’s he who destroys the conch and formally terminates order. By then, one almost thinks him deranged. With his inner conflict, and a strange vestige of conscience, Roger is going mad. Jason Battersby, a child actor with strong Youth Music Theatre credits, very nearly stole the show. Certainly on his every later appearance he cheer-led, almost presided. The face, the moves, the body parts (neck, arms, shoulders) and stances spoke reams. Battersby struck me as – at least potentially - a major performer in the making.

Identical twins Sam and Eric (Sam ‘n Eric or Samneric) are the most loyal, innocent and touching. Golding probably gives their ages. They act like the youngest, but seemingly are older. These two performers formed a perfect and special pair: in the book, they often finish each others’ sentences. Here, intriguingly, Eric (Ciaran O’Breen) is dumb, so Sam (Elouise Pennycott) has to support him, interpret for him, protect him. O’Breen is fascinating: possibly, not necessarily, slightly backward; certainly awkward; shy, without wanting to be; alert, but with limitations.  Pennycott quietly makes a striking impact. She leads, he follows, or periodically resists, strikingly. She voices opinions for them both. In a crisis, she is unexpectedly assertive. They made a very good, contrasted duo.

There are of course, the back-up players: each is weaned, suborned, infected, lured, corrupted by Jack: lesser mortals, they have to reveal weak characters, and they do; but specifically so. Oki Nakagnawa (Henry), John Carter (Perceval, the dependent little boy clinging to Ralph), Justice Ezi (Maurice); and the (crucial) understudies – Olly Rhodes is mentioned; plus the brief closing appearance of the Naval Officer in pristine white uniform (restoration of sanity and order) – more inspiring than his accent - who, at a glance cannot believe children could ever generate such mayhem and hostility; and whose arrival surely saves Ralph’s life as the ‘tribe’ pursues him to his plotted death: the unforeseen dénouement where Ralph finally lets fly and “bursts into tears, and weeps for the end of innocence…and for the darkness of man's heart.”                                    

There remains, above all, Piggy. He is the wisest, the most perceptive (paradoxically – he depends on his glasses, and having had them stolen (“You’re just a blur, that’s all”, is jettisoned (over the cliff of the ‘castle’, by Roger). Played in the Peter Brook film by the amazing Hugh Edwards, like all the others who survive now over 70, and almost matched here, with not dissimilar outer London accent, and a particularly impressive ability to position himself (sitting, kneeling with one knee up, and so on – a host of possibilities) he is played to virtual perfection by Jason Connor. Piggy’s most important moments come with his long speech laying out the principles of morality: the very opposite of what is about to emerge: “What’s right is right. Go to Jack and tell him the truth. Right; truth. Everything that is about to be subverted. Piggy’s death, along with his shattered conch, unveil the death of rationality.

Connor, who is himself partially- or un-sighted, and who as an actor places an emphasis on roles championing various minorities. He might be pleased, or grateful, there were a lot of ‘he/they’ and ‘she/her’s and ‘their’s in the Kingston programme and the Belgrade’s Creatives list. Each to his own, but scarcely necessary in every case: certainly just protect and assert the wish of those who seek, need (Simon, Perceval in this case) and doubtless deserve such identification; don’t universalise it

The curtain calls – always a sign – were simple and tight. Jack tucked his shirt in, and he and Ralph embraced. I guess it happens at the close of many productions, but it’s a nice touch. Perhaps hope for the human race survives after all? 

Roderic Dunnett


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