Blue Remembered Hills

Potter's exploration of the child psyche still packs a punch

Classics such as Blue Remembered Hills, Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective ensured Dennis Potter’s place as one of the most important and innovative playwrights working in the medium of television during the 1970s and 80s. And now Potter’s script, married to Bruiser Theatre Company’s unique take on physical theatre, has produced something beguiling, chilling and 100% extraordinary.

As soon as the audience enter the auditorium to find their seats, Bruiser lead them into a child's domain. The adult actors, onstage and in character, become children at play - the girls play hopscotch, all cotton-socks and pigtails, while the boys play soldiers in short pants and scruffy shirts. We soon learn that all is not as idyllic as it seems.

Taking its title from AE Housman's paean to childhood innocence, 'Into my heart an air that kills', Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills follows a group of children as they set out on an afternoon of play in the woods. But this is no nostalgic evocation of lost youth. In it’s depiction of the shifting alliances, petty squabbles and casual cruelty of the children, it is a more complex and ambiguous view of childhood. 

The play is set in rural England on a summer’s day in 1943. As seven children play in the woods, their actions lead to a shocking tragedy which leaves them changed forever.

In the beauty of Potter’s writing, each scene reflects the pattern of the play as a whole. A perfect example is an early scene where we find the feeble Donald playing ‘house’ with pretty Angela and tomboy Audrey.

There’s great fun to be had watching the girls mimicking their mothers as they roleplay making tea for the husband. Angela, always intent on being the centre of male attention, does her best to dominate Donald. Susan Crothers delivers a beguiling performance as the vain mini-diva, displaying Angela’s ability to be a playful little angel one minute and canny manipulator the next, something many parents might recognise mirrored in their own little darlings.

As Angie Waller’s Audrey begins to distract Donald, we see Angela’s wounded ego lash out. She taunts Donald and Audrey joins in as they scream, ‘Donald Duck, Donald Duck’. They close in, like two foxes cornering their prey as the boy crouches, foetal and in tears. This scene is disturbing to watch and made all the more so by Stephen Daly’s ability to portray the crippling vulnerability of the boy. I defy anyone not to be moved to tears by his Donald’s fawning, doomed attempts to appease the bullies.

The way the scene begins with humour but descends into bitter cruelty reflects the tragic arc of the play. The sense that the individual part reflects the whole links into Potter‘s implied suggestion that who we are as children is part of who we are as adults.

Throughout this scene the rest of the cast stay onstage, frozen still. Their bodies become the trees of the woods. This element of physical theatre works nicely with the subject matter - it is as if the children are playing at being trees. The surreal image is something which would surely have pleased Potter himself.

Director Lisa May delicately handles the shifting tones of the play, weaving together strands of wistful humour and dark tragedy with skill and flair. This being a Bruiser production, physicality is all the more important, and the performances live up to Potter's lucid dialogue. Susan Crothers and Stephen Daly deserve particular credit. As does Michael Condron as Peter, a bully who hides his cowardice beneath blustering bravado. The actors are rarely still, whether tumbling as they wrestle, crouching as they hide from imaginary soldiers or jumping to and fro as they go about each scene. This reflects the vitality of the child characters and makes for an ever-changing dynamic.

The set is perhaps too minimalist - a few branches and an old wooden stump hardly create the impression of the deep, dark woods - but Sean Paul O’Rawe’s finely nuanced lighting more than compensates. When Donald cradles a match in his hand, pleading with the tiny flame to grow, O’Rawe creates a pitiable sense of Donald’s isolation, and as the light swells to reveal the growing unease of the crouching boy we get a sense of the impending tragedy lurching ever nearer.

At 70 minutes the play seems all too brief, and there is no recital of Housman’s poem which made such a bitter counterpoint to the flames of the teleplay’s final images. However, this is a fine production all the same. Blue Remembered Hills has lost none of its twisted charm or bitter humour. Leaving those woods and distant hills, we find we’ve been both thoroughly entertained and deeply affected. Bruiser have reminded us that both innocence and cruelty lie beneath the most angelic of faces.

Brendan Deeds