Played to the hilt


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 1st October, 2015


Ian Serraillier’s classic novel for children gets a new retelling in this lively musical adaptation by Susie McKenna and Steven Edis. The production uses a rich palette of theatrical conventions (from puppetry, to slow-motion) to enhance its storytelling.   Lotte Collett’s set evokes barren landscape and war-levelled cities – there is a large cart laden with belongings that brings to mind dear old Mother Courage!

A versatile and multi-talented company populates the story of three refugee siblings travelling from Poland to Switzerland during and after the Second World War, striving to be reunited with their father. They team up with orphan, street rat, and animal lover Jan, and encounter a host of characters and perilous situations along the way. As the eldest, Ruth, Rachel Flynn has a fine singing voice and perfectly conveys the idea of a young girl having to grow up almost overnight. Oliver Buckner is delicate brother Edek and Abbie Clark makes for a sparky young Bronia. As strong as these three are it is Tom Mackley’s Jan who steals not only loaves of bread and teaspoons but our hearts as well. Cheeky, petulant and reckless with a wild mop of hair, he’s like a homeless Harry Styles, and to him goes the most touching moment right at the play’s end. I had to wipe my eyes before the houselights came up, I can tell you.

Alexander Knox provides a highlight as Major Hargreaves singing about an escaped chimpanzee in a Noel Cowardesque number that stands out in Steven Edis’s likeable score that in largely in the same vein as Fiddler on the Roof. Nathan Turner is heart-warming as helpful, avuncular Russian soldier Ivan – in fact, the entire ensemble impresses, working hard, doubling roles effectively and providing live music on a range of instruments.

Director Susie McKenna charts the stories moods well, leavening what is very serious subject matter with humour and warmth, making good use of projection on the cyclorama to denote place, mood and portray historical detail. The largely primary school age audience sat in rapt attention throughout this smashing, sophisticated piece, and what could have been a demanding slog is a bittersweet joy.

A story of extreme conditions bringing out the bravery of ordinary people, caught up in circumstances not of their making, about hope, resilience and human decency, it is dismayingly still utterly relevant to the world today.

tom mackley

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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