FringeReview UK 2017
Blue Remembered Hills is adapted by Dennis Potter himself. This Identity Theatre Company production revives last year’s award-winning performance. Directed and produced by Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook, Ceyda Tanc’s and Gemma Shrubb’s choreography ensures Nick Gillard’s fight-arrangements fit around them. Gary Cook co-directs with period sound. Martin Oakley’s set speaks miracles of economy, with climactic effects – actor Andrew Wesby’s responsible for some of this. Beverley Grover’s technical support moves beyond lighting to the same thing.
There’s a double refraction now. More years have gone by since the 1979 broadcast of Blue Remembered Hills in TV form than the thirty-six years back to the 1943 it elegised. There’s a cerulean haze on the video when it’s revived: the blue hills both intensify and fade.
Dennis Potter adapted his 1979 BBC masterpiece for the stage, in company with just two other TV scripts. It’s quite a legacy to keep theatrically alive as the Identity Theatre Company muse on their award-winning 2016 production, It revives last year’s award-winning Southwick Players performance. and here at BOAT’s open theatre they’ve pitched their tent and avatar for this revival: a play set in open ground and played there too. Chichester Festival managed a tent production: this one though is exposed to the elements, which throughout the run threatened to hiss.
Directed and produced by Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook there’s a headlong grace that deploys Ceyda Tanc’s and Gemma Shrubb’s choreography seamlessly. The pace is delirious, clipped in deceptively casual eddies. Nick Gillard’s fight-arrangements fit like knots in tight isobar lines. Gary Cook co-directs with period sound cues from music to a siren blast. Martin Oakley’s set speaks miracles of economy, a few logs, a pram and most significantly a shed with open doors which enshrines spectacular effects at the climax which has to be seen – actor Andrew Wesby’s responsible for some of this. Beverley Grover’s technical support moves beyond lighting to the same thing.
Seven children in a wartime Forest of Dean live unchaparoned as 1943 dips its occasional wings at them. Not an adult in sight save that these seven are played famously by adults, confronting notions of childhood and disturbed legacy. By their disturbances they convince. One – Donald – lives mostly detached, harried by two girls who form alliances with four boys, who bully confront and divide as truths lies and prophesies of their adult selves peep through their threadbare clothing. The mimetic pulled faces, spats and casual cruelties pass from child to child. The first climax to the play – a proleptic shiver here – comes in the knocking out of a squirrel from trees, and aftermath.
Insets here consist of sudden spurts of laughter and tag-chasing across the theatre green or around the perimeter of the audience before the start proper. Tobias Clay’s vulnerable Donald is abandoned by Angela sand Audrey who edge up on another trio. We’re in a clearing as Andy Bell’s bullying Peter is joined suddenly by Ben Pritchard’s brash but occasionally witty Willie and Andrew Welby’s stuttering Raymond, a boy who stammers into the right. He’s vulnerable to Peter. Everyone is.
Except David Balfe’s John, who particularly flourishes when Bea Mitchell-Turner’s promiscuous minxy Angela takes him as her champion, whom all the boys fancy. Mitchell-Turner’s masterclass in pertness convinces you eerily she’s about eight. Peter’s stuck with Kate Stoner’s wonderfully stolid and squallish Audrey. Bell’s superb at conveying the opportunistic nastiness, the striving for dominance of Peter’s shallow braggadocio, shivered with cruel twists on the vulnerable.
Balfe’s John, wiser, pragmatic above all decent – though just as likely to slip into mischief – challenges Peter’s bullying. The resultant volte-face of dynamics curiously bonds the antagonists and the escape of an Italian POW shows Potter’s brilliance in showing how alliances and decencies shift, the liquid allegiances of childhood.
Then there’s Donald, abandoned by the girls, happened on by Peter who exacts his habitual cruelties, partly displaced vengeance: Donald’s grieving for his father missing in Burma. Clay’s flinch and hunch of a distressed child pushed past what even his compressed psyche can defend, happens on a devastating ritual. It’s an elemental performance, where Clay conveys a cowed child’s howl. It’s existential too, where Donald’s pain speaks beyond childhood and reaches through Potter’s autobiographical incidentals, making it universal and somehow tied to all wars and persecution. The outfall is spectacular and the idyll ends in something shockingly different to its apparent arc. Clay’s riveting, and his Brighton and Hove Arts Council award – amongst others for this production – seems inevitable.
This is by any standards a remarkable production that at BOAT has found its time and avatar. Sheridan and Cook lead a production that takes Blue Remembered Hills back to somewhere near its source.