Blue Remembered Hills was originally a television play written by Dennis Potter and commissioned by the BBC in 1979 as part of its “Play for Today” series. It starred Michael Elphick and Helen Mirren, broke interesting new ground and won awards galore.
This stage production by New Rep Theatre is just their fifth and comes to the New Diorama fresh from a nomination for a Peter Brook Equity Ensemble Award. The fact this is adapted from television makes perfect sense; this is a one-act play running for just 65 minutes.
The action comprises seven West-Country children playing together in the Forest of Dean one afternoon during the summer of wartime 1943. We see a range of characters from a shy and nervous stutterer, a swaggering bully, a bossy little girl with a pram to a cry-baby simpleton. As the children fantasize and fight through the afternoon all of the elements of typical childhood play are present – soldiers in combat, mothers and fathers, a bit of animal cruelty and some good old-fashioned bullying. The absence of parents is overriding and we are reminded of a time when children were left completely to their own devices; no computers, no social media, just the great outdoors and young, exciting naivety. Yet there is a darker subject matter lurking beneath and the play’s conclusion sees Potter explore what happens when too much freedom is allowed and games descend into unspeakable tragedy.
There are many positives here and most of the elements necessary to make for an enjoyable theatrical experience are present. All of the actors work incredibly hard to exude just the right amount of convincing youthful energy needed to portray children and their accents are spot on throughout. Paul Harnett’s Raymond does well to invoke pathos and Christopher York’s Donald Duck is downright, suitably weird. The set is simple, featuring a beautiful forest backdrop design by Paul Wallis and moveable wooden structures which all combine well to aid the imagination.
Yet, the hour that precedes the chaos that descends as Donald meets his fate is surely designed to build up to this one, devastating episode and whilst it is well-acted, it just doesn’t hit hard enough. I was honestly more concerned about the stamping to death of the squirrel near the beginning– not necessarily a bad thing, since this was an example of one of the play’s grittier, more successful moments, and it isn’t that the piece does not succeed on many levels. It just left me with the feeling that this is perhaps one of those works which does not convert that well from the format for which it was originally intended or at least loses some of its intended impact in translation.