Small but perfectly formed.
Denis Potter’s 1979 television play has established itself so well as a stage play that its text has now found its way onto the GCSE syllabus. Despite the fact that it obviously lends itself to being performed by children, the play certainly gains added layers of almost surreal meaning when played by adult actors.
Director Psyche Stott seems to have set free the children within her seven strong cast, probably aided a great deal by her liberating decision to leave much of the stage movement free and unspecified. The theatrical device of using adults to play children is one that could fail miserably in the wrong hands, but this team have us convinced from their very first entrances onto the stage. The fact that they are at liberty to run around spontaneously carries us all into that apparently carefree place that we’d like to think childhood occupies, but reality is never too far out of sight.
Potter’s glorious dialogue, written in a quirky Forest of Dean dialect, is delivered faultlessly by every one of the cast, all of whom also colour their performances with a wonderful collection of childlike mannerisms – all gangling and awkward – loping about in bodies that they’re growing into.
The fact that the play has been kept to barely more than an hour has been remarked on elsewhere, but to have extended the dialogue for the stage would not have added anything to this story, which is perfectly paced in this compact single-act format. It is to a large extent the speed with which childish horseplay slips through taunting and bullying toward its abrupt, final tragic conclusion that keeps us held in its grasp. Every member of the audience, whether the bullies or the bullied, the winners or the weaklings in their own lives, must have experienced multiple flashbacks during this piece. It has the ability peculiar to good theatre of holding up fragments of mirror, in which we catch momentary reflections of our own lives.
It is at once gloriously funny and strikingly dark, and allows us to see that the cruelty of childhood doesn’t lie far beneath the skin in an adult world.
Rauri Murchison’s grassy bank of a stage design makes a great deal out of simplicity, with its splendid projected forest and its overgrown stepladder doubling as a barn, while Colin Grenfell’s lighting completes the transformations of time and place. Grenfell has lit a number of productions for Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and his work always adds tremendous atmosphere.
The cast are too tight an ensemble to want to single anyone out. Tilly Gaunt Joanna Holden, David Nellist and Christopher Price have worked with Newcastle based Northern Stage previously, while James Bolt, Phil Cheadle and Adrian Grove are playing with the company for the first time, but they all work together seamlessly.
I would certainly be revisiting this production were it not for the fact that I simply have no free evenings left this week and could not get to Wednesday’s early performance. Seats are selling fast for all remaining performances at Liverpool Playhouse, where it runs until Saturday evening and then continues on tour.
14 – 18 May
Box Office: 0151 709 4776
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
21 – 25 May
Box Office: 01483 440000
Watford Palace Theatre
29 May – 1 June
Box Office: 01923 225671
4 -8 June
Box Office: 01865 305305
11 – 15 June
0844 406 8666
18 – 22 June
Box Office: 0844 871 7627
25 – 29 June
Box Office: 01332 593939