Dennis Potter’s 1979 piece for the BBC’s Play for Today is often said to be a story about children’s capacity for cruelty and the way in which adults view childhood memories through the prism of their life experience. Watching Psyche Stott’s excellent Northern Stage production of the play, I was struck by the clarity with which Potter also reminds us of the futility of writing off childhood fears and joys as overblown or irrational. They shape us, and the whole world around us, however far we leave their childish intensity behind.
It’s the bright summer of 1943 in the Forest of Dean. Six children play in the woods, shifting between wide-eyed friendship and juvenile bickering in the midst of a bewildering adult world. As the children fight and tease each other another child sits on the outside, utterly lonely and subjected to seemingly sadistic taunts. As the story unfolds the children’s blindness to the consequences of their actions leads to a mundanely predictable tragedy.
Throughout the play the children find that violence is the most proximate solution to conflict, and a signal source of pleasure. As adults we might see that as purely dangerous, but the play’s wartime setting reminds us that we never really leave our childish propensity for violence behind us.
Potter’s conceit of using adults to play children gets that point across cleanly and powerfully. When we look back at childish memories we impose our adult selves on them, reducing our ability to see clearly the roots of our own weaknesses. So when we see middle-aged David Nellist as Willie, for example, charging around the stage making aeroplane noises, we’re seeing childhood – in Potter’s words – ‘not at one remove, but straight on’. Nellist revels in his role – as do all the actors – and very quickly we forget that we’re seeing a fully grown cast bickering over apples and dolls, and not seven-year-old children. The production’s weird realism is heightened by Ruari Murchison’s monochrome set, looking for all the world like a wartime photo.
Stott has worked hard to make sure the cast are as fidgety, capricious and excessive on stage as children are in reality. Christopher Price is especially uncanny as Peter, constantly munching his lips, pulling at his fingers and showing the emotional volatility we’d expect of a child used to getting his own way through fisticuffs and bravado. (His and the other actor’s Forest of Dean burr is pitch-perfect too, thanks to dialect coach Samantha Dye.)
If Peter shows the way in which many adults use force to get their own way, Donald reminds us that for every victor there’s a victim. Adrian Grove is striking in the role, portraying Donald’s almost unwatchable grief with immense energy and emotional power. Joanna Holden and Tilly Gaunt are similarly striking as Donald’s female tormentors, treating him with the same roughness and glee as they treat a doll.
Potter highlights the folly of looking at that cruelty as though it was actually perpetrated by adults. Children live in the present tense, but as adults we can’t really remember what it’s really like to live from moment to moment. Blue Remembered Hills dupes us into seeing childhood as we really saw it when we were there – in Potter’s words, ‘full to the brim of fear, horror, excitement, joy, boredom, love, anxiety’, unrelieved by being able to imagine what happens next.