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BLUE REMEMBERED HILLS – Richmond Theatre, Surrey.

blue remembered hills“Childhood is the adult world writ large, not small.”

It might seem an odd casting decision, one inviting embarrassed amusement from the audience rather than emotional engagement, but Dennis Potter’s insistence that adult actors play his seven-year-old characters is a masterstroke. Gone is the safe veneer of nostalgia, our ability to distance ourselves from the giddy joy, unbearable desolation and casual cruelty of children. Blue Remembered Hills is not a window to the past, but an unfiltered, unforgiving mirror.

This bleak and bitingly funny one-act drama, which debuted as a BBC1 Play for Today in 1979, uses one never-ending childhood afternoon in the Forest of Dean as a heightened exploration of society. The shifting power dynamics here are as compelling as the most intricate episode of Mad Men or Game of Thrones, as characters vie for dominance, trade service for favour, make and break alliances, fulfil or transcend expected gender roles, and demonstrate again and again that words are mightier weapons than fists, the blows inflicted far more likely to cause lasting damage.

War invades every game and every tussle of a generation defined by conflict, and there are subtle touches demonstrating the hardships of life in Britain in 1943 (an argument over a coveted apple has particular resonance in the context of rationing), but it is the skirmishes at home that keep us gripped. Without adult niceties, the pack mentality is laid bare as the seven children fight for their position in the pecking order, using any means necessary to avoid the dreaded last place.

There is a chilling disinterestedness to this competition, a focus on small, immediate victories rather than long-term consequences. A friend two minutes ago is now an adversary, one whose weaknesses must be savagely exposed and exploited until the point of submission; two minutes later, they may be a friend once more, bonded to us in the shared exhilaration of adventure. Yet our desire for connection is itself a liability, observes Potter – just how far are we willing to go to obtain it?

The combination of living in the moment, dizzying in its liberation, and hints of the forming and twisting of psyches as children lay down patterns they will follow into later life is brilliantly illustrated by Northern Stage’s rousing production. Director Psyche Stott captures the breathless, fearless physicality of youth, but also allows time for the quieter emotional beats to land, although the (admittedly challenging) denouement lacks clarity.

blue remembered hillsTilly Gaunt has the most convincing body language as fastidious Angela, roused to maliciousness when the security of her domestic fantasy is threatened, while Joanna Holden’s sly, bloodthirsty Audrey is deftly delivered. Christopher Price’s bullying Peter regresses believably from top dog to crumpled loser, sloping off to lick his wounds, while Adrian Grove brings real pathos to eternal victim Donald.

However, the strongest moments come in the group scenes, as the crosscutting dynamics collide and transform with the speed of machine-gun fire, or, in the evening’s most powerful moment, as the children unite in their desire for self-preservation by agreeing to a terrible shared deception. Perhaps this morally bankrupt playacting demonstrates the loss of innocence, or perhaps that innocence is also a fallacy, something we graft onto childhood memories to give them their rosy glow. Potter’s world offers no such comfort.

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Reviewed 19/06/13/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

18th June – 22nd June 2013
Richmond Theatre, Surrey, TW9.

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For more information and tour dates visit blueremembered.co.uk

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