Theatre in Wales

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Immaculately Directed Revival

Blue Remembered Hills

Louche Theatre , Penglais, Aberystwyth , November 10, 2009
Blue Remembered Hills by Louche Theatre Louche Theatre is one of the companies, like Bold and Remedy, clustered around Aberystwyth. They have access to actors and technicians of high skill but the programmes that accompany their productions are typically wafer-thin. The audience is left to guess as to the training and background of the talents on show. Such was the case with this adept commemoration of Dennis Potter’s thirty year old, star-studded television film.

Seven children uninterrupted by adults play in a leafy part of Dennis Potter’s Forest of Dean in 1943 or 1944. Director Harry Durnall is his own designer and he created a flow of green baize over several levels, culminating in a great semi-circle covered with leaves. (The production was no doubt timed to allow the collection of fallen autumn leaves.) He had also opted for the more flexible space of Penglais school over the nearby theatre venues for its greater number of entries and exits. Potter’s script is structured around children alone, in pairs, and in clusters, and the use of the space reflected the looseness but also coherence of their association. Jade Johnson’s lighting at times gave the space the golden light of filtered sun in woodland.

The essential quality of children is the lability of their behaviour. They smile at a rate fifteen times greater than adults. Without a fine blend of director and players the acting is going to look foolish. Here the switches from allegiance to hostility, comradeship blended with sudden malice, looked utterly convincing. Tom O’Malley combined an upward slant of his right eyebrow with a hanging jaw that had the hallmark of a face not yet socialised into routine expression. Matt Fullwood, with his lip drawn back and his bared teeth, had the all bluster of the bully. Norma Izon’s Angela and Denise Williams’ Audrey were the classic connection of the pretty girl with the ingratiating friend willing to carry out her wishes. Gareth Vince as Donald had a solo scene with the one repeated line “Come Back Dad.” It was unbearably poignant, speaking for abandoned children everywhere.

The Forest of Dean dialect that Dennis Potter recreated is a linguistic snare with its potential to slip over into an unconvincing mummerset. With its reversed nominatives and accusatives- “too sour for I”, “him can hit a butterfly”- it is a language all on its own. It was handled adroitly by the whole cast.

It is conventional critical practice to bracket “Blue Remembered Hills” alongside “Lord of the Flies”. Yes, they are both about children but the differences are total. Potter recreates the faculty for rapid imagination. A stolen apple becomes a poisoned apple. From then on it is a jump of fantasy to the RAF dropping bomb loads of tainted apples on Germany. But the difference for these children is that the world of structure is all around. When “bloody, buggering cheat” comes out it is in the knowledge that it is language beyond the pale. The ultimate sanction is “I’ll tell my mum.” The games are built around the adult world, the war, cruel Japs and comic hero Rockfist Rogan from “the Champion”. The rumour of an escaped POW, “the eyetie with a knife”, reduces them to collective blubbering terror. Most of all they are bonded, however volatile and violent the behaviour, as a group. While individuals try to escape responsibility after the last terrible incident “we were all together” are the words from one of the girls.

The first fifteen to thirty years after an artist’s death are a crucial time. Reputations either wither or the work enters the canon with respect. Dennis Potter shared with John Osborne a reputation as a volcanic public personality. Their homes, both a stone’s throw from the Welsh border, were in the same county, their deaths six months apart. Osborne has had triumphant vindication in the revival of “the Entertainer”, first at the National and again this month at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Osborne’s assured stature is reflected in the fact that he has been selected for the first year programme of the National Theatre of Wales.

Neither dramatist produced fully worthy work in the twilight of their careers. Dennis Potter’s eve-of-death onscreen virtual blackmail of TV bosses to commission “Karaoke” and “Cold Lazarus” did his reputation few favours. But “Blue Remembered Hills” is raw and distinctive, unique in its concept, setting and language. It has become a curriculum set text, which helped draw appreciative audiences from Anglesey and Swansea. With this production Louche’s reputation will rise. The dictionary definition of Louche- I had to check- is “of questionable taste or morality” which must make it the most ironically named company in Britain.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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