“That is the land of lost content”
You’d be forgiven for going with Beatrix if someone started talking about a story about children written by someone called Potter. But Blue Remembered Hills is the work of Dennis Potter, an altogether different proposition and indeed, Squirrel Nutkin would fear for his life even more than usual if he were present in this Forest of Dean setting. For this is no idyllic treatise on the joys of childhood but rather an acutely observed portrait of how brutal a time it can be and how difficult it is to cling to innocence.
Potter’s innovation here is to have his cast of seven 7-year-old characters played by adult actors. Spending a hot summer’s day in 1943 running up and down the grassy bank, playing at mummies and daddies or being aeroplanes, barely a care in the world one would think. But from the opening scene, any hint of a rose tinted glow is stripped away as the playwright lays bare a stark vision of society in all its viciousness, complexity and relentlessness – the group continually jostling for position to avoid the ignominy of being the last to be picked.
The way in which childhood games turn on a dime and become life or death situations; the fastest of friends becoming the bitterest of rivals in the blink of an eye; the shadow of wartime rationing making a battle over a simple apple into something visceral and vital. And that it is adults playing all of this reinforces the persuasive idea of how much of the people we become is formed in these early days and also how their games mirror the actions of society at large. The freewheeling patterns the children trace on the hillside evoke military aircraft ducking and weaving as much as a swooping flock of carefree birds.
On Ruari Murchison’s simple but highly evocative set, director Psyche Stott encourages a wonderful physicality from her company, a fearless energy that is filled with joy – it genuinely looks great fun to be running up and down that slope – but one which lets the creeping darkness build most effectively, the inexorable slide towards something ominous gradually ratcheting up the tension. At just under an hour, Blue Remembered Hills packs in an enormous amount of thought-provoking substance, reminding us that though we may like to think childhood was just fun and games, it is full of spite and brutality, as well as a measure of blithe tenderness. Soaring, exciting, challenging stuff.