Friends are often made under unusual circumstances. In the years before the start of World War II an exchange scheme existed that enabled British Boy Scouts and Hitler Youth to learn from one another. So, in the small village of Bassington, the local troop plays host to a cycling party of Hitlerjugend, but with tensions between the UK and Germany rising, are the foreign visitors to be trusted, or are they spying? This scenario forms the basis of director/writer Glenn Chandler’s The Good Scout, which is now at Above the Stag, following its highly acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
A moving and often humorous ensemble piece full of exceptional talent
The two scouts we follow are Jacob and Will. Will is played by the one newcomer to the cast, Daniel Cornish, and it seems to be a part written for him. In fact, it was written for his predecessor, Clement Charles, who gave an exceptional performance in Edinburgh. He is now on a six-month contract with the English Theatre in Vienna, which is where Cornish was last year; another take on dramatic irony, as that swap certainly wasn’t planned. Chandler has also made some revisions to the script based on the Edinburgh experience. Jack Wills’ camp fire glows even more brightly and his lighting is redesigned for the new space while Julian Starr has found yet more sounds to enhance the settings and heighten the moods. It now has a quite different feel, but still draws on the strengths of the Edinburgh original.
Cornish’s performance is full of boyish vulnerability and sensitivity, masked by the confident front he shows to his friends and family. He gives a masterful portrayal of Will’s battle with himself which is extraordinary to watch. Charlie Mackay makes the perfect contrast, assertiveness and confidence being the hallmarks of his Jacob. He creates some highly impassioned, deeply moving moments and his only vulnerability is the lure of other youths, especially ones in powerful uniforms. The two boys from the Hitler Youth arrive on stage with plenty of exuberance and, between them, do a great job of raising the nervous energy in the room. With swastikas adorning their arms and a love for their fatherland, they highlight how they had been raised to stand by Hitler’s beliefs throughout the Hitler Youth programme as well as their scholastic education. Clemente Lohr towers over the rest of the cast and puts in a terrifyingly precise performance as Gerhardt. He takes command of the group quickly and efficiently and easily dominates them, much to Jacob’s delight and Will’s disappointment. The second houseguest is Friedrich, who is under Gerhardt’s control and far more reserved than his colleague. Simon Stache brings a nervous quality to his portrayal of Friedrich betraying an underlying fear of Gerhardt that makes his senior seem even more scary. He really comes into the emotional foreground in a beautifully sensitive performance when he reveals his inner feelings about the situation, his family and his future.
The cast is completed by Amanda Bailey as Will’s mum, and Lewis Allcock as the mysterious agent who recruits Will to keep a close eye on Gerhardt and Friedrich. Bailey brings a much-needed calming motherly presence to the story and particularly to the troubled Will. Allcock has the opposite effect on Will’s mind, as he plants seeds of doubt about the boys' true intentions here in England. Finding himself increasingly isolated from their visitors and his best friend Jacob, Will has only his mother to turn to, whilst he waits for the exchange programme to play itself out. The plot takes a twist in the second half, as is only to be expected from the writer of Taggart. It’s a testament to Chandler’s very clever construction that all characters, particularly the four boys, are each given a good storyline and an ample share of the action.
Although The Good Scout is a work of fiction, Chandler makes sure to remind us that it’s based on well-researched actual events. The play opens with an eccentrically imagined re-telling of a well-documented meeting between Robert Baden-Powell and Joachim von Ribbentrop.This and other comic scenes break up the action and are an enjoyable reprieve from the emotional core of the play, whilst giving sound background to where we are in the timeline to war.
The Good Scout perfectly combines history and fiction to make an entertaining and touching tale of coming-of-age and friendship in difficult and unusual circumstances. It is, above all, a moving and often humourous ensemble piece full of exceptional talent.