Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

cast topc

Ken Agnew as Raymond, Richard Constable as John, Jake Collyer as Willie, Lizzy Small as Angela and Alex Hunter as Audrey. Pictures? Alastair Barnsley

Blue Remembered Hills

Highbury Theatre Centre

*****

There is something unnerving about adults dressed as children. We can accept it in a comedy sketch when we know a bloke is only dressed as a kid in short pants and school cap as a joke, it is a send up, all part of the lead up to the punch line - but grown ups who are, well, not a send up, but really are seven year olds? That’s different.

But that feeling of discomfort, that defiance of normality was what Denis Potter was looking for when his Blue Remembered Hills came on to our TV screens as a Play for Today back in 1979.

It is a play not just about childhood, but lost childhood and lost innocence, and it is a story told by an excellent cast who manage to avoid looking like adults just pretending to be children and stick to being adults playing the parts of children.

We open and close with a soloist, Loise Grifferty, in palm court orchestra evening dress, accompanied by John Barber on keyboard at the side of the stage. Barber adds incidental music along with the pan like figure of flautist Emma Francis, hovering in the background.

Then comes the opening scene, a short black and white video written by the play’s director Phil Astle and filmed and edited by Emily White which establishes that Donald, played by Alan Groucott is a pyromaniac – and that his mum, Gill Williams, packed a real 1943 mum’s wallop, 1943 being when the play is set.

We are in the Forest of Dean, in the long summer holiday and the village children have the run of the forest.

Groucott creates a sad figure as Donald, mocked as Donald Duck by his friends – friends in its loosest sense here. His father is missing in action fighting the Japanese, thought to be a PoW, and the nervous, mocked and bullied Donald misses him desperately and lives in a state of fear and worry.

don

Alan Groucott as the troubled Donald

He is the jam jar king, and with money on returns, that makes him a prime target for Peter, his chief tormentor. Peter played by Simon Baker is bolshy, pushy and an out and out bully. Baker manages to create a character you don’t like from the off, perhaps a throwback to all our schooldays when there was always some objectional bully who took it out on anyone he . . . or she . . . saw as weaker or less able to fight back.

We trapped ours inside a vault box one lunchtime after he made a girl classmate cry – but that’s another story.

His first victim is Willie, played by Jake Collyer who creates a character who wants to be friends with anyone no matter what they do to him, but he does have his revenge when Peter steals his apple, Peter having done better on brawn than brain.

Peter’s reign as top dog is ended by John in the capable hands, and fists, of Richard Constable, who gives us an almost sensible seven-year-old with the first hint of logical thought.

His elevation to alpha male comes in a fight over cheating in a bet over Raymond’s ability to hold his breath – under water - with the day-long loan of a knife or a ball of string the stakes. Times in 1943 were a bit different. It is a realistic fight, for seven year olds, co-ordinated by Jon Pegg.

Raymond, p p p played by Ken Agnew, suffers from a stutter, making him the constant butt of j j j jokes. He seems to be a permanent extra in a game of cowboys and Indians, with hat and six shooter as normal wear. Agnew gives him an air of nervousness, a mild sensitive character who is appalled when the rest kill a squirrel.

The village is not just boys though so enter Angela and Audrey. Lizzy Small’s Angela has a penchant for playing house, pushing around a pram complete with baby doll. She sees herself as everyone’s best friend but chooses her own friends as she likes.

Small gives her an air of queen bee rather than bully and we find her playing mummies and daddies with Donald, which is not what you might think, depending on your own youthful endeavours of course, but is merely a vehicle to boss Donald around and, you suspect, act out her own mother’s treatment of her father.

Alex Hunter’s Audrey exhibits a rather cruel streak and we find she sides with Peter up to the great schism over Raymond’s breath keeping. She is a willing aide and the root cause of the accusation of cheating.

duo

Simon Baker as Peter with Willie

She sees Peter as odds on to win but when the dust settles the other way her attentions seem to be shifting away towards John.

There are the daft ideas, silly arguments and the bizarre tales sworn as true that seven-year-olds are prone to, but when the siren sounds to warn of an escaped Italian from the nearby PoW camp they have a new problem to deal with.

The prisoner has slit the throats of two guards John has been told, or maybe not as he has been with the group the whole time and has spoken to no one else.

But the reaction of our little band shows bravado does not actually extended to any situation that might involve any hint of danger, so it takes quite a lot of negotiation to find anyone to rescue i.e. go and collect the nearby pram that was left behind in the rush for cover – although what an Italian PoW on the run would want with a child’s pram and dolly was never made clear.

That could have been the climax, but there is still time to plague Donald before heading off home for dinner, a fun little joke, a jolly jape, a bit of a laugh . . . an unintended murder.

We have all had experience of seven-year-olds standing by a broken plate, or carpet spill or whatever and denying any responsibility, but a fatality? That comes as a stop you in your tracks moment in what had been almost like a fairly normal Just William adventure - if we miss out the squirrel killing.

The lies of denial, the deflection of responsibility, come so easily though, leaving us with a frightening thought that we are probably seeing the adults these children will become.

But perhaps this is the point, Potter always had a message, or at least something to think about in his writing. Here we see the children our world, or at least the world of 1943, has created, the attitudes and pecking order already embedded at seven, and then we have a vision of what that that generation will become as adults.

At its simplest though this is a play to enjoy, full of humour and moments that remind us of our children and our childhoods. It is also a play that Potter inflicted on actors, writing it in Forest of Dean dialect.

So, its hats off to the cast who managed to dance their way through a dialect that is only within waving distance of English grammar and they did it without I missing a beat as I might say/

The excellent cast of seven carried it along not as adults but as children, which is no mean feat, with the looks, gestures, delivery, thoughts and ideas . . . and, eventually, lies of children.

Director Phil Astle and Malcolm Robertshaw have created a flexible set with clever use of a rear screen from Andrew Birkbeck and a thrust section which comes into its own later.

Steve Bowyer and Andrew Noaks increased the flexibility of the set with lighting, including the squirrel and the effects in the closing dramatic scenes.

It is a play which opens to make you a little uneasy, but it settles down with some light hearted moments, plenty of humour and memories of past childhoods, yours and your childrens’, a touch of nostalgia reminding us of the child in all of us. To 16-03-24

Roger Clarke

06-03-24

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