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The Woeful Second World War (tour – Chelmsford)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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The sixth in Birmingham Stage Company's adaptations of the Terry Deary Horrible Histories series sees us in the early years of the Second World War. In Phil Clark's production the emphasis is placed on two children, evacuated, distinctly against their own wishes, to the Welsh countryside. Although they don't know it, this means that they escape the notorious 1940 bombing raid which razed the city.

As always, the visual aspects of the production make a strong impact, abetted by some spectacular 3D effects devised by Amazing Interactives. These include a less-than-friendly cow, a ferocious guard dog and – best of all – the bombing raid on Coventry and its aftermath, with fires flickering amid the rubble and wounded church spires inviting a shower of Flanders poppies. It's a climax to move hearts and invite minds to think about both the causes and the effects of conflict.

Before that Jacqueline Trousdale's designs bring us the exterior and interior of the Medwell home, the Turner shop and home, railway stations, a train journey, village streets, farm buildings and a butcher's van braving the blackout in pursuit of black-market meat. The storyline doesn't preach about such things and the predominantly young audience takes them as normal behaviour in such circumstances. The story is carried through the interaction of Sally and Alf with the adults they encounter, including a fussy headmistress and an injured RAF officer, and there are some quite lengthy exchanges. It's a merit of the writing (by Clark and Mark Williams) that these were listened to intently. The songs are all of the period with opportunities for the audience to join in and Tom Lishman's sound systems has some good effects, among them the wireless sets, telephone coin-boxes and whistling kettles (remember those, anyone?).

Four actors play all the parts with Matthew Schmolle entirely credible as young Alf, football-mad and itching to leave school and work in his father's butcher's shop. Perry Lambert has a nice lines in put-downs as Sally, a girl with sense and a fair idea of what really matters in life. Laura Dalgleish is Mrs Medwell, worrying about her husband away on active service and her daughter's future as the first bombs fall, and the disagreeable farmer whi sees an evacuee equally as extra cash and unpaid labour.

Ciaran McConville obviously enjoys the roles of wheeler-dealer Tommy Turner, looking to help out his regular customers as well as turn a little extra profit, the Welsh clergyman and the pilot who escaped a PoW camp only to drip over an oil drum. It may be called horrible history – and perhaps there are some people (young and old) who find history something to be avoided. But it's also very fine theatre, and that's something to celebrate.


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