Cider with Rosie

Laurie Lee, adapted by Nick Darke
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford

Rachel Dawson as Rosie
Susie Blake as Mother with family
Charlie Hamblett as Loll

Lee’s enchanting tale of life in a small Gloucestershire village, beginning when he arrived there as a bewildered three-year-old in 1917, is certainly not the easiest option to translate into a stage version. The book has become a classic, beloved by many and also on the schools syllabus, but the attraction is all in the narrative and definitely a challenge.

Produced by a Gloucestershire company and following extensive research among people who actually knew Lee (including his wife and family), this must be the most authentic visual representation of Lee’s autobiography although, as the author himself has admitted, the tale is only as he remembered it and may not be totally accurate. The ‘Rosie’ of the title, for instance, may or may not have existed or was perhaps an amalgamation of the girls who introduced Lee to the mysteries of women and sex, but either way it’s a good story.

It would be tempting to call this a sleepy village, “The horse was king, and almost everything grew around him”, but although the pace of life might be slow, the whole of life was here, and death—including suicide, hanging and murder—was accepted, discussed and then forgotten as easily as the sexual explorations of the pubescent young.

As an older Laurie Lee, Richard Derrington narrates large chunks of the book with the relevant action being performed by this versatile cast, and designers Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith have created a deceptively simple sepia set of rustic planking which converts to all the venues required. Even the carol-singing children tramping long distances between houses is well portrayed.

There were around 250 inhabitants of the village, and Lee seems to have fitted most of them into his story, so this hard-working cast of nine have some work to do taking on several diverse characters each which, under the direction of Paul Milton, they manage with well-rehearsed dexterity and credibility. Madeleine MacMahon’s transition from exuberant young girl to to cranky Granny Trill is particularly impressive, matched by Nicola Sangster’s Granny Wallon. Only Charlie Hamblett as the young ‘Lol’ and Susie Blake as the mother have the luxury of coping with only one.

Blake gets right under the skin of the elusively mercurial character of the mother, the woman who brought up seven children single-handed. The steely determination which kept them fed, clothed and above all happy is only just below the surface as she trips happily through life as if she had not a care in the world. Her eyes shine with happy expectation as she dreamily awaits the return of an errant husband who never did return and finally, when the children have grown and gone, the sagging jaw and vacant eyes hint at loss of memory and mind.

Hamblett (who also plays violin, as did Lee) is more feasible as the slightly older and more sensitive Lee than the infant who, in my mind, was a chunky, solid child given to bawling a lot, and once we got into act two he, and the rest of the cast, have endeared themselves to the audience and the show zings along—probably the best interpretation that this story could ever have.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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