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Keep Smilin' Through (Keswick)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Lisa Evans’ new play, which receives its world première at Theatre by the Lake, focuses on Keswick’s home front during the second world war. It revolves around events in the life of Maggie, a young wife who shares a house with her Gran and tongue-tied evacuee Hilda – her husband’s return from the war on leave, Hilda’s being taken back to Newcastle by her father, a mostly unspoken romance with a ‘doctor’ who turns out to be an imposter.

 It builds to a finale at the town show involving most of the characters, as Maggie, her best friend Peg and Gran perform the ‘Blackout Stroll’. This may bring into your mind variety and the whole show has that feel, with most the performers singing or playing an instrument during the period songs which punctuate the action. These genuine 1940s numbers contrast quite strongly at times with the very contemporary way some of the characters tell the audience exactly what they are feeling and why.

These feelings are sometimes a little one-dimensional, for war seems to bring out the best in everyone. The deceitful doctor does no harm, a German refugee shrugs off the petty victimisations she suffers, Hilda escapes from her nasty mother to turn up out of the blue to join the children’s choir at the end, and even though Maggie’s husband hits her while he is home on leave we hear no more about it.

Performance wise Heather Saunders breathes life into Maggie, and Polly Lister brings some feisty energy to her friend Peg. Ben Ingles and Benjamin Askew as the doctor and Maggie’s husband respectively provide unobtrusive support.  But the most effective moments often come from characters keeping something of themselves back. Fiona Drummond’s miserable evacuee Hilda watches but says nothing, Kate Layden’s Gran tunes in and out but makes the most of her moment in the spotlight at the end, and Heather Phoenix’s vulnerable German refugee Leonore often maintains her dignity in silence.

Lastly, Matt Addis’ taciturn Perce offers some fine comic moments, and Olivia Mace brings plenty of vim to the posh land girl Jean as well as singing beautifully. Director Ian Forrest and assistant Jez Pike get the best from a talented cast in this sentimental and sometimes confused journey to the Keswick of seventy years ago.

- Stephen Longstaffe


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