The Custard Boys
Adapted by Glenn Chandler from the novel by John Rae
Boys of the Empire Productions
I am wary of writers who direct their own work. There is a danger of being so close to the material to appreciate where you may have gone wrong. But in this adaptation of John Rae's book about a gang of World War II evacuees in Norfolk, Glenn Chandler seems to have got things just right.
It is smoothly staged with the cast swiftly constructing each new scene from basic set elements of planks, a ladder and some camouflage netting and they slip into new costumes unnoticed as they turn into another character. I was at a loss to identify the significance of the cable drums that become furniture: the barriers used to block beaches and roads from invaders perhaps, and they are manoeuvrable and probably cost effective, but the idea of a map as a backing and a coastline painted on the floor cloth to suggest countryside is exactly contemporary, the town boy's only sense of the rural (though you wouldn't want a map to fall into the hands of a Nazi invader).
The cast of young actors, playing schoolboys even younger and much less sophisticated and worldly than today's school generation, also double all the adults. They play them slightly caricatured, as schoolboys would see them. In the same way the boys' understanding of the war is one formed by adventure stories and patriotic films as they play out their own war games, parade with the school cadet corps, and plot battles with the local village gang they can't wait to become real war heroes.
As they play at cards and marbles to the sound of birdsong, this could be another idyllic English summer. It may be a bit of a shock for a nice boy from Kensington to have to cope with a farm cottage outside loo, but gung-ho enthusiasm and built-in prejudices are intact: xenophobia and anti-Semitism, disgust at difference and deviation.
Into this comes Mark Stein a gentle Jewish boy, a refugee from Vienna, a new "bug" at the bottom of the pecking order in born-leader Lewis Craig's gang. When the headmaster puts John Curlew in charge of him, a relationship develops between them for the other boys to ridicule and the adults, on discovery, seek to terminate. Andrew St Pierre gives Stein a touch of awareness to the boy's seeming innocence, though it is Charlie Cussons's well-meaning, wide-eyed Curlew who is accused of being the other's "corruptor".
This is an excellent ensemble with Marco Petrucco as Willy, Jack Elliot Thompson as Peter and the non-too-bright cadet drill and gunnery instructor, Josh Hall as gang strategist Felix and the plummy-voiced headmaster, Tom Sanderson as Jacob and Curlew's pearl-necklaced mother while Jack Cameron as Lewis also turns into Curlew's father. In addition they can suddenly become the Battle of Britain airmen or pipe-smoking war heroes of the films they are watching, always skilfully keeping the young lad's perspective, even when one of them becomes a cigar wielding Winston Churchill.
You can see the tragic denouement coming but not the way in which it projects the play's theme that war is war, something bloody and terrible, that in real life it isn't a glorious game.