Writer: David Wood
Director: Angus Jackson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The National Theatre achieved phenomenal worldwide success with its adaptation of War Horse, a children’s novel set against the backdrop of war. This production, originating from Chichester Festival Theatre, is on a smaller scale, but it uses a similar formula. It tells a story that is, in turns, both gentle and cruel and it even incorporates some wonderful puppetry.
David Wood’s play is an adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s 1981 novel centring on the evacuation of children from London to rural Dorset at the beginning of the second World War. Robert Innes Hopkins’ picture postcard set of the idyllic countryside, painted in warm pastel shades, transforms into a dark and threatening vision of London’s air raid shelters and homes during the Blitz. Thus Magorian’s story, showing how evacuation could have been a happy experience for children, rather than a period of unbroken trauma, is supported visually.
William Beech is a damaged child, abused physically and mentally by a religious zealot mother who disapproves of touching. At the outbreak of war, he is billeted on Tom Oakley, a crusty and dispirited widower, and his faithful dog Sammy (puppeteer Elisa De Grey goes almost unnoticed). From an awkward and uncertain beginning, William and Tom form a bond and, through each other, both find a form of redemption.
The play is at its most beguiling in the country scenes, creating a nostalgic air of wartime English eccentricity reminiscent of Dad’s Army. William shows a sense of wonder at seeing his first squirrel and discovering the meaning of the word “picnic”. There are displays of a community spirit that would have been alien to an urban setting even in peacetime, such as when an am-dram group stages Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan. These are acts of defiance to “keep the home fires burning” even as disastrous news filters in from outside their cocoon
David Troughton’s solid and dependable Tom, well-meaning if cantankerous, provides credibility to the story even when it steps into unlikely territory. In contrast, Melle Stewart is a fearsome Mrs Beech, giving her scenes a Dickensian flavour as she explodes to press her warped version of Christianity. Many children seeing this performance may not want to go near a church for a very long time. The rôles of William and his best friend, the extrovert Zach, are each being alternated by three child actors.
Wood and director Angus Jackson do not entirely escape a feeling of contrived sentimentality and the strings tugging at our emotions are often too visible. Nonetheless, the mix of skilful storytelling and theatre magic proves hard to resist and it would be a cold heart indeed that remains unmoved.
Runs until 20 February 2016 and then tours
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