Away from the battlefield, one of the most challenging aspects of war is displacement. The Custard Boys follows the lives of a seven strong gang of displaced schooolboys during the Second World War in rural Norfolk and the relationship between two of them.
Based on the novel by John Rae, this is a touching and often, very humorous adaptation with a commendable, young cast. The story follows the misadventures of a schoolboy gang made up of five evacuees and a local farmer’s boy. Schoolboy life is permanently changed when Mark Stein (Andrew St.Pierre), a Jewish Austrian refugee joins their school. The headmaster allocates London evacuee John Curlew (Charlie Cussons), as Mark’s mentor. John dutifully takes on his role and is keen for Mark to join the gang. It is quickly evident that Mark’s Jewish and Austrian backgrounds aren’t the only things that set him apart. Mark makes his feelings towards Curlew clear and Curlew positively responds, albeit initially reluctant. As their relationship blossoms the war intensifies, as does its influence on the schoolboys’ lives.
Glenn Chandler writer and director of The Custard Boys has unearthed a gem from the relatively unknown novel. The story has many captivating elements, from gang hierarchy to the affects of war on children. Chandler most definitely made the right choice for his directorial debut.
The cast take on their roles enthusiastically. Josh Hall, who plays pedantic schoolboy Felix Hearse and headmaster ‘The Wart’, has eminent comic ability and talent. He positively shone on stage, alas occasionally at the expense of other members of cast. Charlie Cussons and Andrew St. Pierre portray John and Mark’s tender relationship wonderfully, which comes through during the brief moments they are alone together. A larger majority of the play concerns how the war is changing the boys; they adapt their clothes, activities and film choices to fulfill their dreams of being soldiers. The leader of the gang is the youngest-looking and shortest boy, a choice that seems highly obtuse until Mark describes Hitler as being short. This, perhaps, allows the audience to draw comparisons between fledgling schoolboy gangs and national wars.
The creative set, designed by Cecilia Carey, deserves praise for saving the production from falling into a chasm of stereotypes. In this case, filled with school paraphernalia and classroom posters. Instead, old maps of Norfolk are used to coat cushions, planks and wooden wheel drums of various sizes, which are used to create each hidden corner of Norfolk. A huge map of rural Norfolk is used as a backdrop. This moves the production away from schoolboy life and more towards themes and topics less mentioned in the play: place, belonging and feeling lost.
The success in this play lies within its ability to bring humour to bleak issues; by doing so, the playful spirit of schoolchildren is present throughout. However, by some this may be seen as brushing over some of the more harrowing aspects of the play; the Nazis bombing closer to home, homophobia, anti-Semitism and the ever present lingering of death during war-time.
If you enjoyed the books Lord of the Flies and Goodnight, Mr. Tom, you’ll enjoy this well crafted tale of evacuee life during the Second World War.