A Strange Wild Song

Devised and written by the company
Rhum and Clay Theatre Company
New Diorama Theatre

A Strange Wild Song

The title is borrowed from Lewis Carroll and A Strange Wild Song has some of his zany quality but the inspiration for this play comes from a series of photographs taken in 1914 by a Belgian photographer who encountered a group of children playing at their own war: the “Grenata Street Army”.

Rhum and Clay have moved things forward to World War Two and envisaged an American soldier encountering a group of children alone in the bombed Normandy village of St Antoine in 1944. These scenes are intercut with contemporary ones in which archaeologists who have recovered some of the soldier’s possessions are returning them to a member of his family. We go from a village caught in the midst of the post D-Day conflict to the red-lit dark room where 60-year-old film is being developed and interpreted.

Musician Laila Woozeer is playing a bassoon as the audience enters (and on accordion, keyboard and singing too she makes a big contribution to this production), but as the lights go down this gives way to the sounds of shells and bombing. When they fade some signs of life appear among the stylised rubble and gradually three odd figures emerge. They wear what look like Hieronymus Bosch designed romper suits and from their behaviour we know they are children. These three little boys are playing their own war games in the middle of a real war.

The boys' wars are romantic excitements with fluttering flags; death for them, as for Peter Pan, must be “an awfully big adventure” yet at the same time we are aware of their terror in real life. Christopher Harrisson, Julian Spooner and Matthew Wells, who play them, present us with both at the same time.

This is not naturalism by a long way but it is still very real, for these actors are also skilled clowns—the company’s members were all trained at Jacques Lecoq’s school. They can give us comedy, tension and pathos all at the same time as, for instance, they approach a metal object with bravado, hitting it with the sticks that are their play rifles, making us share their fear even as we laugh.

The three of them play out aerial dog fights, parachute landings, battleground amputations. In the thick of things what have they seen? Then into the boys’ world wanders a weaponless, disoriented American played by Daniel Wilcox. He has no French, but these children tend not to use words but communicate through their own language of whistles and signs. Gradually, warily comes trust between them and the American has a camera.

The present day scenes place the wartime ones in their context, played by the same actors who seem to disappear and re-emerge in a moment as modern adult characters at the same time refiguring the setting. These contemporary episodes are verbal and carry their own humour.

This piece of largely physical theatre is an accomplished piece of devising. It is not based on logic but upon feeling. At about an hour long, its length, like its timing, is spot on. It is fascinating to watch and very enjoyable.

Rhum and Clay are touring this production. The next performances are: 7 March Acorn Theatre, Penzance , 8 March Tolmen Centre, Cornwall, 14 March Chulmleigh Community College, Devon, 15 March Winkleigh Village Hall, Devon, 19 March Unity Theatre, Liverpool.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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