Review: Blue Remembered Hills by New Rep Theatre

This is the first production I’ve seen by New Rep Theatre, which was founded four years ago by Mari Cameron and Cecilia Colby, and the play itself is a particular favourite of mine, although I have never seen it on the stage, despite being the proud owner of a copy of the original television version. So it was with great interest that I sat expectantly in the audience at the New Diorama, waiting for the show to begin.

The setting was simple but strong. A wooden children’s climbing frame dominated the centre of the stage, backed by a pseudo-oil painting by Paul Wallis of a rural meadow, blue sky and trees, with subliminal birdsong setting the scene. It’s not an easy feat to take a play written for a more realistic genre and transpose it onto the stage, but this felt right.

Disappointingly, after staring at the backdrop for a few minutes, I realised that it was somewhat creased and cracked, which made me wonder whether the designer was making a statement about the world in which these children lived. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it was actually a symptom of less-than-excellent production values, a view which was backed-up by the poorly stapled-together printed programme, with a wonkily-cut, photocopied insert, apologising for the partially complete biography of one of the actors, which wasn’t just missing a credit or two – it stopped in mid-sentence!

Nevertheless, once the play began, the standard of acting made up for my earlier gripes. It’s no easy thing for adults to convincingly portray children, but the performances were genuine and largely without artifice, drawing you into a world of 1940’s rural living, the impact of the war and the games invented by the children which both reflected and commented on their social situations.

Glenn Lloyd as Willie was convincingly aware of his place in the pecking order, demonstrating tendencies to become the group’s joker, and Matthew Foster as John and Gary Roe as Peter played out their power struggle with sensitivity. Rose McPhilemy didn’t quite bring out the spitefulness of the plain and manipulative Audrey, but Nellie McQuinn as Angela subtley portrayed a girl who is beginning to see the potential of her own attractiveness, but is still naively unaware of others’ feelings. Christopher York as Donald had the showpiece part, and brought out the vulnerability of the character beautifully, cleverly avoiding the trap of wallowing in martyrdom or alienating the audience with over-played emotion.

Paul Harnett’s portrayal of Raymond was, as they might say, a performance of two halves. I cannot but sympathise with his desire to elevate a character which is, in the scheme of the whole play, less significant than most of the others and, having made the choice to play him as a boy with cerebral palsy, his performance was superb. However, I have to question Director, Graham Hubbard’s judgement in encouraging or allowing him to do so. The character is written with a stutter – a slight impediment which elicits regular teasing from the other children, but still allows him a place in the group. I found it distracting that his disability was more pronounced, and hard to believe that children of that time (indeed, sadly, probably most children today, of that age) would choose to pick-on and bully Donald, when there was a much more obvious target in Raymond. As it was played, the character thrust itself too far forward to balance the other performances and, in this, Graham Hubbard showed a degree of inexperience which I found surprising, given the range of work in his biography.

The final, shocking, climax of the piece – a fire in the barn started by the abandoned and distressed Donald, which ultimately results in his death – was unfortunately realised in a way which required more technical capability than a show on this scale is realistically able to achieve. It began with a small, real fire in a metal container, clearly restricted to adhere to fire regulations, but then developed into an over-loud soundtrack, which felt as though it was attempting to compensate for the inadequate flashing red lights by filling the space with more volume, and the final image, of Donald in physical agony burning in the fire, went on slightly too long to have real impact. The whole sequence would have benefited, in this context, from less attempted realism and more stylisation.

There were also a few other unsubtle elements to Hubbard’s work which disappointed, most notably the delivery of the final verse, on which the title of the play is based. He chose to divide the couplets between the cast, who stepped out of character and stood in a line at the front of the stage, facing the audience, each removing and dropping an item of blue clothing to emphasise their couplet. This had the effect of making the delivery of the whole somewhat staccato, and the blue items of costume distracted from the meaning, having no apparent dimension other than a literal relation to the ‘blue’ in the poem and the title. What was intended to be a final comment on the piece, completing the catharsis and giving us perspective, became harshly disengaging and seemed unrelated to the rest of the drama.

The set design of the climbing frame together with two trucks of crude plank walls, for which there was no credit in the programme, was accomplished, its versatility allowing for a variety of settings and locations and it was well-used by the cast. The fight sequences, however, were under-rehearsed and too obviously fake not to jolt the audience out of the world of the play.

All in all this was a creditable production, if unremarkable, and stayed true to the spirit of the piece. The quality of the acting far outweighed the direction, but nevertheless it was an enjoyable evening and I would recommend it to others as a good production of a great play.

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