Adults playing children on stage is tricky territory. Peter Pan this isn’t, but Wellington Theatre Company’s production of Blue Remembered Hills succeeds from the first moments in revealing the antagonisms that underlie unsupervised play.
Set in the wartime Forest of Dean, the play by Dennis Potter covers a single day as seven schoolmates mess about in the woods; laughing, squabbling, bullying and ultimately killing.
Reversing the hall was an imaginative masterstroke from director Paul Smith. Putting the capacity audience on raked seating built up on to the stage and the set at the back of the hall gave enough space to create a realistic woodland space, aided by many metres of camouflage netting.
With a cast of seven, all on view for the entire 90-minute performance, there needed to be room for the eye to rove. Kevin Stratton as the dominant yet insecure bully Peter was totally convincing, reminiscent of the manic threat of the late Rick Mayall.
John Skittrell was a perfect foil as Peter’s nemesis John, all shirt-twisting anxiety yet with a powerful will. Their battle to be top dog was played out in alpha-male style in front of the sadista sisters, Angela & Audrey – a well-judged affectionate rivalry from Charlie Hughes and Beth Swan.
Leon Searle gave a heart-rending performance as Donald, a vulnerable boy whose father is a PoW. Not an easy task to portray such sensitivity and intelligence amidst a boorish peer group but Leon managed it superbly.
The play would have been unbearably bleak were it not for the wonderful comedy, physical and verbal, introduced by Willie (David Duthie) and Raymond (Ian Jones). Willie’s opening cameo where alone on stage he embodied the noisy shooting down of a Messerschmitt was a joy to watch.
Paul Smith is a big fan of Potter’s work and this production really gets to the heart of how profoundly the child can be father to the man – in the nastiest sense. Thank goodness the humour in the play stops it being all Lord of the Flies.
A final mention for Steve Bradnum’s lighting design. The final scenes must stay a surprise for the audience but they represent a technical and imaginative riumph. As does the whole play.
‘Blue Remembered Hills’ is at the Arts Centre, Eight Acre Lane, from until Saturday 28 March at 7.30. Tickets online from www.wellingtonartscentre.co.uk or from Nurtured by Nature in South Street or call 0844 997 4000.