I remember a boy named Jeremy like it was yesterday. We used to be friends in our preschool days, and then somewhere along the line for reasons I’ve forgotten we started to tease each other. I remember the day when I was walking home and, unprovoked, I gave Jeremy a bloody nose, and I laughed when he slipped in the snow and walked home alone while I walked home with friends. I hate Blue Remembered Hills for making me remember these things, and it’s all the better production for it. It’s a truly wonderful slice of theatre.
Hills, set in the waning years of WWII and tells the story of a group of children trying to have fun. But as innocent as these children may initially seem, gradually each one shows darker, sinister shades that forces the audience to wonder how such children could be capable of such cruelty. They kill squirrels with the desire to cut off their tails, make high stakes wagers with one another like gambling addicts, and bully others relentlessly without a hint of remorse. Their blissful naivety toward the consequences of their actions is as fascinating as it is unsettling. Why are these sweet kids like this? Is it the adults, caught in a war, imprinting these nihilistic values onto them, or is this simply the true nature of children? I pray it’s the former, but the possibility that it’s not is going to give me nightmares.
At one point Peter (played by a stellar Nick Cain) actually picked a leaf off the floor and ate it. That’s dedication.
I can only imagine how much fun setting up that stage must have been. In addition to a (sadly underutilized) tire swing and a simple barn-esque door, the floor was covered stem to stern in leaves. Real, brown, crinkly, wonderful leaves that just begged to be jumped into, and thankfully this incredibly game cast more than obliges. Despite all being adult actors, never once do you not buy their youthful personas–and they make it all look effortless. At one point Peter (played by a stellar Nick Cain) actually picked a leaf off the floor and ate it. That’s dedication.
It’s just unfortunate that the script requires them to speak in a thick Forest of Dean dialect
Even more impressive is how each of these actors, within the confines of their child mannerisms, manage to create characters entirely distinct from one another without straying too far into archetypes. Peter barks loud but has a weak bite. Nina Blythe’s adorable Angela is introduced as the mother in a game of house (a suggestion of society’s planned fate for her), but shows plenty of natural spunk to move beyond such confines should she choose to. Boo Jackson’s Rae talks with a stutter and has a kind heart, but can stand up for herself when challenged. And Sam Greenwood’s portrayal of the bullied Donald “Duck” is nothing short of heart-wrenching. The script gives ample room for each actor to shine, and shine they do without a single weak link. It’s just unfortunate that the script requires them to speak in a thick Forest of Dean dialect; they give a noble effort, but their desire to be as accurate as possible results in what occasionally sounds like mumbling. Thankfully, it does nothing to stifle the audience’s immersion.
What does break the immersion, though, is the lighting. A short one-act, the decision was made to separate each short scene with blackouts, blunting the tension and allowing this play to slightly loose steam rather than gain it (particularly toward the climax). The sound mixing also deserves a slight mention, since a few of the effects were played with hints of static in the background–a drawback of cheap downloads that muddles their impact.
The best Fringe production I’ve yet seen
However, the fact this production team had the ambition to attempt such things at all (two words: smoke machine) is a small miracle in itself, and I don’t fault their missteps in the slightest. It results in the best Fringe production I’ve yet seen, and with a little luck it’ll result in a slightly better future, as all great theatre should. After all, awareness is the first step to improvement. To all the remaining New Theatre productions: the bar has been set. Good luck matching it.