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Blue Remembered Hills (Oxford)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Oxford Playhouse

David Nellist as Willie
Ostensibly a stylised retrospective on childhood, with swings between memorial haziness and sharp relief, Blue Remembered Hills emerges from Psyche Stott's direction with special pathos. Seven characters are children portrayed by an adult cast. This is more than a curio, and is true to its themes.

The characters are prototypes for their adult selves, in terms of their self-image and their innate handicaps. Most striking is Peter (Christopher Price), a juvenile sadist whose physical size allows him low-stakes extortion and blackmail of his peers, who himself will crumble whenever an unexpected defeat occurs. His only recourse is to bully the vulnerable Donald. Adrian Gove's deft handling of a sensitive character both bereaved and abused is worthy of high esteem.

The female cast are equally adept at convincing us of the difficulties of childhood ambitions ill-fitting with the innate flaws that will inform their growing-up experiences. Audrey (Joanna Holden) is the bespectacled mouse-like figure and best girl friend (it seems), but is squawkingly delighted to see discord and acrimony. Tilly Gaunt is deliciously funny, as her character's ideas of playing "mummies and daddies" include lambasting a male playmate for drunkenness and emotional indolence, shouting at an inanimate doll to stop screaming the place down, and so on.

As part of their preparation, the cast interacted with actual seven-year-olds. This doubtless contributed to the spot-on physicality: the lack of poise in the girls tempered with occasional self-consciousness when playing ladies; the boys whose spurting growth has left them occasionally malcoordinated and charmingly absurd as they imitate aeroplanes.

Inevitably, an audience will spot the archetypes of childhood here, reflecting timeless experiences regardless of location. In this case we are in the West Country (it takes a while to tune into the dialect and idiom), but the recognisable features of growing-up are there. The boys who long to be fighters, cowboys, soldiers and victors, but who are paralysed with shock after killing an animal needlessly, or racked with confusion at a father missing in action. The girls who want to be mummies, loyal confidants, gentle souls, but are mystified that boys are so callow and brutish, and that they themselves are so enlivened by chaos. The modest set, a mere grass verge, is a place to take on the puzzle of innocence and its slow retreat - through playing.

- DFV Cochrane


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