There is a hint of Alec Waugh’s Loom of Youth in this production, not with a background of the First World War, but in the midst of the Second. It deals with adolescent homosexuality, latent and not so latent, in the context of school, having been written by John Rae, an evacuee and later housemaster at Harrow. Additionally, and perhaps more centrally, it examines dislocation and the way that the disruption of war throws class differences into disarray.
Set in a Norfolk village, the boys are a socially mixed group who even include one of the local boys in their gang. However, none of them are as big an outsider as the Austrian refugee who comes to live in their midst. The consequences are no surprise; they are not meant to be. Rather, the play slides towards its inevitable conclusion engendering a grim feeling of reluctance in the audience and leaving much up in the air.
Performances are solid throughout, although everyone took a little time to warm into their characters and indeed accents. The fact that the boys play, variously, their parents, guardians and schoolmaster (and on one, not so successful instance, Winston Churchill) give it a unique adolescent perspective without descending in the realms of adults playing children. There is a constant contrast between adult jingoism and their petty squabbles over the First World War and their roles in the current conflict, reflected at the end by the boy’s reactions to their plight.
All is not doom and gloom; there is much variety and humour with some genuine laugh out loud moments. Each actor succeeded in creating warmth and empathy within their roles; I particularly liked Tom Sanderson’s Jacob Freen. Andrew St Pierre’s refugee Stein had an accent that strayed over the border into Germany rather too often (Viennese Austrian is particular) but the performance was strong and engaging enough for that to be a quibble – knowing and victimised by turns as his wealthy upbringing has left him ill-prepared for lack of status and the death of his mother. Just as his proto-lover Charlie Cusson’s Curlew struggles to come to terms with his recent impoverishment and billeting in primitive surroundings. There is one wonderful line where he vehemently denies having nits – “We’re from South Kensington!” Priceless.
I confess that it rang true on a personal level: as the daughter of an Austrian refugee, I was paired with a German girl who joined my school as they thought that I was the closest match! We thought that they were bonkers as we knew that she had closer Teutonic ties to the English than me, an Anglo-Slav.
Cecelia Carey’s set comprising cable reels of varying sizes was effective and was handled efficiently by the cast. Glenn Chandler’s direction was subtle and ensured that the pace zipped along throughout.
There were a couple of minor problems: trousers that unzipped (wouldn’t they have had fly buttons?) and the fact that Stein’s mother was shot whilst trying to escape from Auschwitz – I believe that this would not have been general knowledge until after the War?
Overall, though an excellent evening with performances to match that makes me want to visit the film and the original novel.
Performed at the Tabard Theatre.