Blue Remembered Hills
New Rep Theatre
New Diorama Theatre
It is 1943, the middle of the Second World War, and, in the middle of the English countryside in the Forest of Dean, a group of young children are playing.
They have that mixture of uncoordinated gawkiness and vitality that makes kids of school age but not yet into puberty seem so innocently endearing, despite the violence and cruelties they perpetrate. They are a generation allowed to run free, not reared in motor cars and in front of televisions sets by parents fearing paedophiles and traffic accidents, but perhaps not so different from children of today.
Their games mirror the adult world. First there is little Willie, in holed pullover and dirty shirt, a bandage around his arm, who’s playing at soldiers, then changes his mind and decides to be an airman, zooming around arms outstretched. He’s joined by sharpshooter Peter, with scratched and muddy face. But the thing that marks this play (and it was a surprise to audiences when Potter first wrote this for television in 1979) is that, despite the short trousers and authentic behaviour, these characters are played by grown-ups.
The setting presents a climbing frame in front of Paul Wallis’s backdrop of a country scene that looks like a photograph that has been torn and pieced together gain. You could take this to be a metaphor for a fragmented memory being reconstructed or for the times, an English countryside that had been torn by the problems of the poverty-stricken thirties or now the pressures of war. The wooden frame can become trees to climb on or provide the shelter of a barn.
Glenn Lloyd and Gary Roe, who play Willie and Peter, establish themselves immediately as seven- or eight-year olds. The pleasure of the play and of this production comes partly from just watching actors become something they clearly are not. That is one of the joys of theatre and director Graham Hubbard draws performances from his actors that capture the physicality of childhood yet place these children at a slight remove.
We observe their cruelties without getting caught up in them and watch with a detachment: not so much involvement as personal recollection. There is a moment when both boys collapse into a hysterical giggle and then simultaneously release a sigh that is suddenly very moving. This is a case of playing reality and a construct at the same time. For those who look for symbols, whilst the sound of an air-raid siren threatens this English Eden, the eating of a fought-over apple can be seen to mark the end of innocence.
When Paul Harnett’s stuttering Raymond, with cowboy hat and pistol holster, and Mathew Foster’s John come to join them, the boys don’t have to do so much to establish their youthfulness and quickly establish their characters before things move to a couple of girls, bossy Angela (Nellie McQuinn) and Rose McPhilemy’s Audrey playing families.
Audrey is rebellious against the authority of Angela, who is playing Mother because it is she who owns the doll. Both take it out the awkward Donald (Christopher York). They call him Donald Duck and he is the insecure lad picked upon by all the other children, forced to be a loner and adding extra pathos to the story’s final drama.
For about an hour, this cast play out Potter’s picture of childhood and its flawed innocence. Only at the very end, when they remove their blue jerseys and pullovers and lay off their characters and speak AE Houseman’s lines that Potter himself delivered in the original television version (and from which he took his title) did they not carry me with them, perhaps because this doesn’t quite match their personal memory of childhood:
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.
It does, however, exactly contain what this play is about in its comment on the way most of us remember childhood and the guilts that linger from it.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton