Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Friend or Foe

Michael Morpurgo, adapted and directed by Daniel Buckroyd
Scamp Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2011)

Friend or Foe production photo

The theatre foyer was crammed to bursting with excited chattering schoolchildren, mostly between the ages of seven and fourteen, which was roughly the ages of the 3,000,000 children evacuated from danger zones during World War Two in order to avoid the bombing. Many of the evacuees had a very hard time with unfeeling and sometimes actually cruel foster parents, but the two boys who are telling their story in this play had such fun and such an exciting adventure I’m sure that many of the young audience could have wished to join them.

Morpurgo, though, doesn’t miss out the unpleasant parts and things didn’t look too promising at the beginning. There was the trauma of leaving home and family (with only a suitcase and the essential gas mask) to be labelled like a piece of luggage before cramming into a small railway carriage and traveling for many hours to a ‘safe’ place in the country, especially uncomfortable with a teacher who smoked incessantly all the way. Arriving at their destination, weary, tearful and disheveled, they were lined up on the stage at a school hall to be looked over and chosen one by one. “You’re making it sound like market day” complains the farmer who arrives late to collect one girl and instead finds two dejected boys wondering why they hadn’t been chosen.

Mathew Hamper and Paul Sandys, playing our two heroes Tucky and David, didn’t put a foot (or anything else either) wrong throughout the whole play; their expressions, mannerisms and attitudes were absolutely, exactly those of the eleven year old boys they were representing, and the rest of the five-strong cast were equably credible, true to type, and very versatile, taking on several roles each. Chris Porter managed four.

Janet Greaves changed from the stressed but conscientious headmistress, escorting vast numbers of children to (hopeful) safety, to the motherly kindly farmer’s wife where the boys were finally billeted, and Michael Palmer is a perfectly judged taciturn farmer, saying little but noticing everything and eventually proud and pleased with his charges.

Keith Baker’s two-way raked set, with the re-positioning of a few props and a steering wheel, becomes a railway station, train, bus, school hall, farm house, and moorland, before returning to its opening bomb-site, and the whole production is a perfectly balanced masterpiece of storytelling and emotion with a thrilling adventure thrown in for good measure.

Friendship, trust and loyalty are paramount in an era when all were questioned, and the boys find themselves discussing the rights and wrongs of a situation which finds them having to chose between betraying or helping a perceived enemy who has just saved your life, even if he is a hated German. “I am wearing the uniform of your enemy,” says the airman, “but we are friends”.

Buckroyd keeps the pace of the production at a steady rate of ‘always something new happening’, and the children (young and old) were absorbed, attentive and engrossed throughout (and silent). Maybe it could have given them the idea that there is more to life than the latest smart ‘phone.

Touring to Buxton, Worthing, Basingstoke, Abergavenny, Dudley, Winchester, Bracknell, Portsmouth, Harpenden, Doncaster, Blackpool, Peterborough, Colchester, Hatfield, Hornchurch, Eastbourne and Exeter

This production was reviewed at Watford by Howard Loxton and at Newbury by Robin Strapp

Reviewer: Sheila Connor