Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Blue Remembered Hills - Review - Royalty Theatre

Blue Remembered Hills  
Royalty Theatre
30th October 2017

The Land of Lost Content (A E Houseman)

Into my heart on air that kills  
From yon far country blows: 
What are those blue remembered hills,   
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,         
I see it shining plain, 
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again. 

Blue Remembered Hills was originally written by Dennis Potter as a BBC Play for Today. It is just an hour long, and is the most straightforward of his scripts. It covers just one short afternoon in 1943 in the Forest of Dean where seven children are at play. First we meet Willie (David Robson) and Peter (Lee Stewart) who are playing war games, Willie is a fighter pilot swooping and diving across the stage, arms outstretched like a plane. Peter jumps down from a tree pretending to be a parachutist jumping from a plane. They brag and swagger, as boys do full of bravado, trying to out do each other and end up fighting over an apple as Peter asserts his superiority. He is bigger and stronger and he beats Willie despite Willie's more cunning wit. This is the first sign of a pecking order which will become clear as the play progresses and we meet the rest of the gang. John (Andrew Barella), the main rival to Peter as top dog in the gang, Raymond (Billy Towers) who stutters and is the butt of their jokes, the girls Angela (Abbi Laidler) and Audrey (Nikki Slack)  and finally Donald (Peter Kelly) awkward,  victimised by his mother and his friends, he doesn't quite fit and is at the bottom of the pecking order - lower even than girls.

The play moves along at a gallop as the friends meet up, squabble, fall out, make up and fall out again. They size each other up, takes sides, and swap allegiance for their own self preservation as only children can. Their childish mimicry of, and attempts to understand, adults provides much humour especially in the first act. In act two things take a darker turn, as sirens sound and the search for an escaped POW gets underway. Although there is still much humour there is also the feeling that something sinister is about to happen.

It's an interesting play that covers a lot of ground in a short time. It covers themes of war, prejudice, nationalism, bullying, peer pressure, isolation and abuse. The title is a phrase taken from one line of a poem by A E Houseman, The Land of Lost Content and it harks back to the lost innocence of youth, but also to the idea that the innocence we remember as adults is rose tinted and is in actual fact a misremembered fallacy. By insisting that the children be played by adult actors, Potter illustrates the idea that while claiming to offer protection and guidance adults are pushing them towards an adulthood of  conflict and struggle - symbolised by the childish bickering and the re-enactment of war games and playing "house".  While on the surface the play seems to be nothing more than the story of a childish game gone wrong, it is actually a very complex examination of society.

The cast do a grand job of portraying the children with their exaggeratedly childish behaviour - Lee Stewart, Andrew Barella and David Robson especially create a genuine sense of the rivalry between boys, while Abbi and Nikki succeed in creating two of the cattiest, cruellest and most and partisan girls. Again, reflections of the adult world are clear in these two.    

The set is deceptively simple, enhanced by clever lighting and carefully chosen music and sound, it provides all the ingredients necessary for each scene from the woods to the barn.

If there is a weakness in the play, for me, it is the penultimate scene, which feels rushed and therefore lacks a certain impact, though from the reactions of others in the audience, I may be the only one that feels this. I did however like the poignant reading of the poem in adult voices - pulling the children forward into their future adult selves, looking back on an event that changed them forever. 

An interesting production. A lot of laughter, a lot of emotion, and a lot to think about. 
Blue Remembered Hills plays until Saturday. Tickets are available in advance from the website or on the door from 6.45 each night. 

Denise Sparrowhawk

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