Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews


Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama , Sherman Theatre Cardiff , February 12, 2006
This review first appeared in the Western Mail...

The controversial playwright Dennis Potter may have lived for only fourteen years of his life in the Forest of Dean, but those crucial childhood and adolescent years seem to have had an overwhelming effect on him.

Or at least his recollection of them. The title of his famous television play, now widely performed on the stage with few amendments, is an ironic quote from the poet A E Housman to suggest that childhood is too often remembered romantically – and while Potter here effectively demolishes the idyll of innocence he, of course, had himself constructed his own idea of his youth in and around Berry Hill and the Forest.

But such is the power of his invented Forest of Dean that the place in many of his plays becomes a metaphor for the playwright’s own phobias, fears, insecurity, social alienation and sexual repression. The result, for some, is a body of work that sets Potter up there in the pantheon of British twentieth-century dramatic greats; for others it meant a series of plays, mostly for the small screen, that liked to shock and were essentially autobiographical fantasies pretending to be social commentary.

One thing’s for sure: Potter could write drama well and, for me, it’s as a playwright rather than tv screenwriter that he deserves the plaudits – and this new version of his 1979 BBC Play for Today from Ruth Carney for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama emphasises how the stage best accommodates his more enduring qualities.

The novelty of the story, set in 1943, is that Potter has adults playing children – a typically neat device from a writer who was always coming up with unconventional devices – and so we can see in parallel a kind of innocence and a representation of adult life. The kids play at war while many of their male relatives were actually involved in the reality of it, they parrot their parent’s relationships when they play mothers and fathers, oblivious to the tales of cruelty and patriarchy revealed in their mimicry, they enact the bullying and pecking-order game-playing that is there in any group, and to which the young Potter himself was vulnerable.

Ms Carney seems to want to exaggerate the unreality of the drama, pushing what in some ways can be seen as a naturalistic play into expressionism. The physicality of the kids is pushed beyond what Potter expected, with the actors energetically racing and tumbling amongst the audience, and the portrayal of childish mannerisms takes on a bizarre pantomimic character. Angela’s doll is shown to be black (something you simply didn’t find until relatively recent times), presumably as a reference to the unwanted effects of black American GI’s relationships with British women.

All this lends a distance to the action and reminds us that it is set during wartime, when family life was disrupted. As the bullied and sensitive Donald Duck (in whom we cannot help but see some of the playwright) bangs his head and cries for his father to return we are taken to a shadowy scene of soldiers singing somewhere, and the theme of absent fathers enters a story that is usually about the loss of innocence in the Eden that was the Forest of Dean.

For the Forest is quite certainly the setting here, when it might have been tempting to transfer it, say, to the Valleys.

There is in Potter’s work the suspicion that he viewed his Forest with some shame, an unfortunate accident of birth he had transcended and managed to reinvent and manipulate as a source for drama, and the characters here have more than a hint of that superior urban stereotyping of rural simplicity and simplemindedness which it seems to me this production picks up on. (After all, when Potter “came home” as a successful playwright he settled not in his native village but to a large house in Ross-on-Wye, ten miles by road but several light years in terms of culture and social standing !)

Al this makes this RWCMD production interesting, even if we might wonder whether they chose a set text imply to pull in audiences - and it is helped by some good performances and, surprisingly, generally creditable Forest accents.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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