Friend or Foe (Colchester)

With anniversaries of two world war butting up against each other, this new production of Daniel Buckroyd’s adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo story is very timely.

The cast
The cast
© Robert Day

The evacuation of inner-city children – often from the most crowded and insalubrious areas – to the English countryside as the Luftwaffe rained its bombs on the industrial and commercial heartlands of its enemy makes for some gripping stories.

Michael Morpurgo's "take" in Friend or Foe offers a snapshot into the experiences of two lads pitchforked into rural Devon, coming to terms with this (to them) extraordinary environment and learning that even the enemy is not necessarily the embodiment of total evil.

Young David (Jake Davies) might be forgiven for seeing only the dark side; his pilot father was shot down and did not survive the impact.

Tucky (Séan Aydon) is an altogether more happy-go-lucky character; he always sees the funny side of things. Which is not necessarily an easy thing to do. These young actors manage to convey the essence of boyhood as their characters find themselves having to make grown-up decisions.

School head Miss Roberts (Janet Greaves) is a chain-smoking martinet, though she's out of her depths when the billeting officer (Chris Porter) finds that he's got a brace of redundant boys for which to find places and farmer Reynolds (Nicholas Tizzard) turns up late having expected to collect one girl to help his wife.

Greaves doubles as Mrs Reynolds, the epitome of old-fashioned country-style good nature and genuine charity. Tizzard's acerbic (and overworked) Reynolds gradually mellows to his enforced guests, taking their side even when their story of seeing a German bomber crash are disbelieved by the military authorities.

Two airmen (Tizzard and Porter) have survived, both injured, one quite seriously. The boys find them – and those grown-up decisions as to how to react, not to mention questions of right and wrong – come thrusting into the foreground.

Director Matthew Cullum allows this second half to build at its own pace, just as the evacuees' experiences come helter-skelter as they jolt from the London streets crunching with bomb-débris to a countryside silent under the stars. Keith Baker's set of raked planks is cleverly lit by Mark Dymock. Tom Lishman's soundscape is a real part of the action, never mere decoration.

Friend or Foe continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 13 September