Dennis Potter's small but disturbing play which intrudes on seven children larking about on a wartime summer's day is now a staple of community theatre. Deceptively simple in plot, it explores the cruel games, complex friendships, and moral dilemmas that childhood throws up as well as reminding us, simply, that memory is a funny, trick-playing beast.
Off Track Theatre in this, only their second production, succeed rather well.
It also requires one of the most difficult things to pull off as an adult actor – portraying a child convincingly. Off Track Theatre in this, only their second production, succeed rather well. Using no props, they cavort around the roomy Estrade Church, dive bombing the audience, squabbling, and knocking each other for six.
James Darby's Peter, the leader of the gang, is full of bullish bravado and his gladiatorial combats with John (Lewes Roberts) are very funny in their red-faced competitive fury, not least because one is a head taller than the other. But it is Harry Hill's (no, not that one) vulnerable Donald Duck who impresses most. His face moves between gormless bewilderment, wincing agony, and impotent frustration as he strikes match after match after match to get one over on the 'buggering Japs' who have taken his old dad away from him.
His face turned to the wall, his body squirming as if trying to wriggle away from itself, Hill captures one of the play's main themes of children's impotence when faced with the adult world and, more generally, man's inhumanity to man, in just one movement.
Unfortunately, Potter's conclusion, which works perfectly in the 1979 filmed-for-TV original, doesn't suit the theatre. In the TV film we're left with a long, lingering shot of the burning barn which enables us to reflect quietly on what's happened. Director Ben Simpson's solution feels too abrupt. A pity, as everything else in this piece is pretty much pitch perfect.