BLUE REMEMBERED HILLS
Derby Theatre, Tuesday 25th June, 2013
I have nostalgic memories about Dennis Potter’s play, which was originally written for television. The piece itself, since adapted for the stage, is riddled with nostalgia as a cast of adult actors run around, representing a group of children during the Second World War. The theatrical device of having grown-ups play children later surfaced in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers but I think Potter did it first.
There are similarities with Lord of the Flies in that there are no adult characters and we see the children interacting on their own terms: their negotiating of relationships and status within the pecking order, their adherence to perceived rules, their sudden cruelties, and their imaginative play. This is childhood back in the days when children actually went out to play, before they started being ferried everywhere by their parents, before paranoia about paedophiles and so on clouded everyone’s judgment, before the internet isolated everyone at home… I’m not so old I can remember the War but I do remember being allowed out.
Christopher Price is Peter, a bit of a bully and admired by all. He embodies the physicality of the boy perfectly as well as the psychological processes. David Nellist’s Willie is more sensitive – when he’s not running around pretending to be an aeroplane. Joanna Holden’s Audrey has a lust for violence, urging her friend to give the doll a smack to shut it up. She is a resilient girl, epitomising the shifting loyalties and the power struggles within this societal group. Her friend Angela (Tilly Gaunt) is prettier and more ‘girly’ – the pair form an effective double act. Phil Cheadle’s John challenges Peter’s status and a fight breaks out, a proper childish scuffle, rough and tumble of a skirmish – the boys reach detente soon afterwards. James Bolt’s Raymond is a stammerer and therefore a target for mockery but it is Adrian Grove’s Donald who is the outsider. A lonely boy, pining for his missing-in-action father, Donald has a penchant for arson, which leads to tragedy.
The children realise they have to make-believe they had nothing to do with Donald’s demise. They have to use their play-acting to keep them out of serious trouble. This is the moment when innocence is lost and adulthood beckons. Childhood is not sweeties and games, Potter tells us, but rather the training ground for the harshness and deceits that will inevitably come our way.
Ruari Murchison’s set is simple and effective. A curving slope evokes landscape and a tall stepladder represents the barn. Coupled with Colin Grenfell’s lighting, the set transports us to locations in an impressionistic way but it is the excellent cast that truly make this production outstanding. Director Psyche Stott has prepared them superbly well and delivers all the shifts in mood and tone seamlessly. The energy of childhood and the tensions of their relationships bounce off the stage. I came away feeling wistful for my own childhood although perhaps it could be said I remain an adult-sized person who behaves like a child.