Interior (Natasha Tripney): A thicket of skeletal trees made from scaffolding poles painted a jarring shade of blue forms the backdrop to Anna Ledwich’s stage adaptation of Dennis Potter’s television play. The cast, playing seven year olds, clamber and scramble across these metal branches; they swing by their arms and drop to the ground, mimicking the actions of parachutists. Ledwich’s production is the first of three to be staged in Theatre on the Fly, a new temporary space located on the stretch of green between Chichester’s Festival and Minerva Theatres. The play, set on a summer afternoon in 1943 amidst the trees of the Forest of Dean, is a good fit for the space; behind the performer’s the back wall has been opened up revealing the parkland beyond.
Exterior (Tom Wicker): There are two narratives at work here: the one inside the Theatre on the Fly space and the one outside it. One bleeds into the other at the threshold of the high-ceilinged barn-like structure, which sits beside Chichester Festival Theatre like a secular place of worship. The gap between the structure’s beams and the semi-transparent membrane mottled with light never lets you forget how near to the world you are. This is exhilarating at times. But it also becomes a test of your limits.
The park forms an evocative backdrop for the story. The cast make full use of this depth of field. As they approach the stage from the trees, playing mother or zooming around as airplanes, it is as if memories are being dredged up and made solid. Time blurs with distance while landscape and weather inform tone. When we saw the production, the sky was blue and the sun was out. Towards the end, this bucolic view became as ironic as the nostalgia-drenched quote from A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad that gives the play its title. This worked well, but what if the weather had been stormy?
Interior: Inside the theatre, the cast of seven play at being children. They echo their parents’ nagging and scolding, they drag around a squeaky-wheeled pram, they tease and taunt one another, they gleefully kick a squirrel to death. A minute later and their faces start to quiver with remorse; they contemplate giving the limp dead thing a proper funeral before that idea too is dropped and forgotten in favour of a new scheme, a new game. The play’s wartime backdrop of internment camps and POWs subtly infects their play in much the same way as the expanse of green outside the theatre infects the audience’s perception of the space.
Some of the cast manage the task of conveying the physicality and mentality of seven year old children better than others. Ryan Early, as Willie, in his battered blazer and uneven socks, strikes the right note, resisting the urge to overplay, to bawl and stamp and scream. Leila Farzad also convinces as Angela, a young girl already awake to the power of her femininity, and her performance contrasts nicely with Laura Rogers’ gawky and far less self-assured, Audrey. Gregory Gudgeon, as Donald – the loner, the weeper, the child most personally affected by the war – is particularly moving, even if he sometimes has the biggest gap to bridge in order to convince as such a young child.
Exterior: The nearness of the outside world intensifies Ledwich’s production but it was not without its problems. One was a straightforward clash of timing: the noise of people milling around during the Kiss Me Kate interval was distracting. The other issue was less tangible and more (I think) to do with me. I relished the three dimensions visible beyond the space itself. But the doorway was also a view-finder; a frame for a picture that happened to be made of real grass and trees. I found myself resenting the passers-by who would stop and wave, as if we were their show. I wanted the world to be real, but on my terms.
Interior: The hum and chatter of the interval drinkers aside, I didn’t mind these occasional interruptions. The bemused dog-walkers only add to the charm of the experience for me. What did pull me out of the world of the play from time to time was a failure of inhabitation, particularly in regards to replicating the tears of a seven year old, the hot, all-consuming, world-ending wail. The artifice of playing children was a difficult thing to sustain even with a running time of just over an hour, and the production slumped in the middle only to be reenergised in the final moments, as their sepia world is forever altered, tainted.
Exterior: Designer Andrew Edwards uses the production’s practical effects as a filter for the world beyond the barn doors. In the final scenes, as smoke fills the air, the sky as we see it seems to turn a burnt orange and clouds become shades of the same colour. The loss of innocence we are witnessing on stage – the traumatic steps towards the end of childhood – becomes almost apocalyptic in scale as the combination of light, smoke and vision achieves what no video projection could manage.