The Machine Gunners

Adapted from the book by Robert Westall by Tom Kelly and Ken Reay, with music by John Miles
Customs House, South Shields

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The Machine Gunners tells the story of a group of young teenagers for whom the war is an opportunity for missing school and for collecting shrapnel,.bits of crashed aircraft and other "trophies". We see this aspect of their lives, as well as their rivalries, the growing (at age 14) attraction between the sexes, the problems of family life, bullying - and growing up. We also see the very different world and attitudes of the adults towards the war. And then Chaz McGill and his gang find not only the tailplaneof a crashed Heinkel with machine gun still attached but also the plane's gunner, Rudi....

I saw it back in 1998 in the Assembly Rooms at the Edinburgh Fringe where it was produced by students of South Tyneside College (at which the two writers were lecturers) and directed by Ray Spencer, then a lecturer at the college and now director of the Customs House. I was much impressed (four stars) so when the Customs House decided to revive it as part its fifteenth anniversary celebrations (for it also played at the venue for two weeks), albeit with a different cast and director, Gareth Hunter, I was keen to see if my first impressions were justified.

Something happens to critics in the hothouse atmosphere of Edinburgh. We tend to see many shows in a short space of time - around six or seven a day - and a significant number can be of really poor quality so that good productions tend to shine rather more brightly than they would in a more "normal" situation. ( If you look at the page linked to above, you'll see what I mean!) So, does The Machine Gunners still impress?

Generally yes: the story is told clearly and compellingly and the music is excellent. It does tend to be somewhat televisual with many of the scenes being very short and, while this cross-cutting works effectively on screen, it can slow down the action and lessen the dramatic tension on the stage. In a number of places this could have been avoided by running the separated scenes into one. However the piece effectively unites the multitude of different themes which run through it and tells the story with great clarity.

In terms of the actual production, I do have some quibbles. The decision to wheel furniture on and off from behind closed doors at the back of the stage between scenes did dissipate focus and dramatic tension and slow down the action, which meant that in the very shortest scenes the actors had to fight hard to restore that focus and tension with, frankly, little hope of succeeding.

There are two scenes in which central character Chaz dreams of his being such a Scarlet Pimpernel-ish hero that his fame spreads to Germany and to Adolf Hitlter himself, which gives rise to two very funny songs featuring Hitler and two henchmen. However the director has chosen to have Chaz lying asleep on the floor at the back of the stage behind the action so that the link between him and the songs is lost and they seem disconnected from the rest of the play and therefore gratuitous, which they are not, for they give a further insight into the mind of a 14 year old caught up in a conflict that seems like a storybook adventure to him.

The cast unites some of the region's most experienced actors with some very young newcomers. Neil Armstrong (Mr McGill) and Tracy Gillman (Mrs McGill), along with Annie Orwin who plays neighbour Mrs Spalding, effectively provide the domestic background. Donald McBride (Stan) and Tony Neilson (Sandy) give the military perspective from the point of view of the Home Guard (not at all Walmington-on-Sea!) while Louis Roberts is the bitter, wounded at Dunkirk policeman, Sgt Green. Jamie Brown is the very sympathetic German Rudi and Charlie Richmond gives the learning-disabled John real life without ever descending into caricature.

The rest of the cast are the youngsters, all playing 14 year olds, and all themselves - with one exception - in their early twenties or even younger. The one exception is Wayne Miller (the bully Bodser and a hilarious Hitler), who played Chaz in the original production. James Baxter (Chaz), Tom Booth (Cem), Steven Stobbs (Clogger), Jamie Hannon (Nicky) and Rachel Teate (Audrey) prove that the future of NE theatre is in good hands.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan