Blue Remembered Hills

5th to 16th March 2024

Dennis Potter | Highbury Theatre | Directed by Phil Astle

Highbury Theatre’s brave decision to stage Dennis Potter’s brutal vision of wartime childhood pays off in a production which brings seven-year-olds to life in all their appalling glory. ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ may not be as familiar to audiences as ‘The Singing Detective’ or ‘Pennies from Heaven’ but this lesser-known play from the master of innovative television deserves to be seen.

First broadcast on the BBC back in 1979 as part of the ‘Play for Today’ series, ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ focuses exclusively on a group of children during the summer holiday of 1943. We are thrust into their turbulent world, forced to see it through their young but far from innocent eyes. The main challenge of staging this piece is that the adult cast of seven must convince us that they are all seven-year-old children. The Highbury Players, to my great relief, rise to the challenge in raucous style: minutes into the opening scene I forgot that I was watching adults.

The title of the play comes from Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ and, as director Phil Astle notes, is sarcastic. Any romantic notion of childhood as a time of carefree play and innocence is soon smashed in Potter’s bleak and harsh evocation of the cruel world created by adults and inhabited by children. We may be in Somerset but this is no rural idyll. Mirroring the adult world, it is a place profoundly lacking in kindness and empathy. The childhood world brought to life on stage is one of taunting, teasing, sniping and bullying. Of cruelty dressed up as play. It’s an uncomfortable place in which to spend time, as it should be.

The use of an original short film, ominously titled ‘Strike a Light’, at the start of the evening cleverly sets the tone for what will unfold. Phil Astle and Malcolm Robertshaw’s set design evokes a Somerset wood convincingly and is enhanced by Andrew Birkbeck’s series of nature screen projections at the back of the stage, through which the actors burst. Sound is used particularly well in this production: soloist Louise Grifferty, flautist Emma Francis and keyboard player John Barber work beautifully together to create an often haunting and uneasy soundscape.

The seven-strong cast of adult-children capture the chaotic exuberance of seven-year-olds in performances of great physicality, using their bodies to communicate in ways that adults learn not to. Simon Baker’s Peter is a recklessly spontaneous ball of energy, capturing the exuberant excitement of childhood brilliantly and particularly strong in two convincing fight scenes. Jake Collyer’s performance as Willie is subtle: he throws himself around with gusto but there’s a glimmer of morality behind the mischief when he is the only child who seems to accept responsibility for the story’s tragic ending.

Alan Groucott is moving in the role of the victimised Donald, the target for much of the teasing and taunting in the play. His helpless weeping about his ‘missing’ father hints at the adult world of war raging beyond the Somerset hills. Richard Constable is convincing as the bullish John and Ken Agnew’s Raymond is a pitiable figure, mocked and ridiculed cruelly for his stuttering.

The different ways in which boys and girls often play is highlighted in the characters of Angela and Audrey, brilliantly played by Lizzy Small and Alex Hunter. In storytelling, rather than fighting and killing squirrels, on the surface the girls appear more civilised as they play ‘families’ but a harsh adult world is soon mirrored in their game. An adult world of husbands demanding tea on the table and escaping to the local pub for drunken nights.

It's a curious piece of theatre: a play which is at times funny but which is also deeply disturbing. Like Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’, it forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about children and childhood. How children play, communicate and treat each other is inextricably linked to how they have seen the adults in their lives communicate and treat each other. We shape their world. They are a reflection of us. The chaotic, lawless and brutal world of ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, sadly, may not be one confined to the war-torn early 1940s.

A thought-provoking and professionally staged production of a fascinating play.

‘Blue Remembered Hills’ is playing at Highbury Theatre in Sutton Coldfield from 5th to 16th March 2024.