Cider with Rosie

Laurie Lee, adapted by Nick Darke
Cheltenham Everyman
Salisbury Playhouse

Cider With Rosie Credit: Antony Thompson
Cider With Rosie Credit: Antony Thompson
Cider With Rosie Credit: Antony Thompson

The trouble with adapting Cider with Rosie for the stage is, firstly, the opening page, where three-year-old Lol finds himself lost and alone in an unfamiliar forest of grass and nettles taller than himself. Difficult, especially when he’s the central character and when he’s got to grow up gradually over the next two hours.

So what to do? Miss it out? No. Wouldn’t be Cider without Lol’s poignant howls to evoke our sympathy and set the mood for the remainder of the action, would it? Hope to train a toddler? Don’t think so. It’s a bit of a casting director’s nightmare, really.

So there’s only one thing you can do, isn’t there? The eight children, presided over by their delightful mum (Susie Blake), coping cheerfully with extreme poverty and the lack of a husband’s support (he was working in London at the time and is never mentioned), are all played by adult actors who just behave like children. Confusing at first, but, with a bit of effort, and the assistance of two Laurie Lees, one older (Richard Derrington), looking back and giving us a narrative link, as well as the boy Laurie (Charlie Hamblett), providing the action, we learn to adapt and, in the end, it isn’t really a problem.

There’s a lot to pack in, of course, and we wait eagerly for our favourite bits from Laurie Lee’s autobiography. The set helps, all monochrome bare boards and functional furniture, that clever construction at the back opening up to become the pub counter where the wealthy New Zealander dispenses largesse before succumbing to his grisly fate and spiteful Crabby the schoolteacher receives her well-deserved retribution by being lifted onto the top of a cupboard, while the children rush joyously outside.

Then there’s that constant reminder of Laurie Lee’s other passion, the fiddle-shaped space in the darkness above the set.

So there’s music, of a sort, and pretty rough it is. But they’ve wisely resisted the temptation to enlist electronics, so it fits with the home-made entertainments which went with that isolated and unsophisticated life, where the horse, the bicycle and feet were the only means of transport, winters were cruel and summers were a poet’s delight.

In spite of occasional deviations from the Gloucestershire dialect, the cast is pretty convincing and, if the poetry is sometimes hard to find, we can forgive. Because what this play achieves is to trigger our own memories of the book, possibly from years ago, which call up such poignant emotions.

And, leaving the theatre, I don’t think I’m the only member of the audience whose first intention on getting home is to put the kettle on, then reach for my own copy of Cider, to relive all those wonderful and evocative scenes from a magical and, sadly, bygone age.

Reviewer: Anne Hill