Friday, November 18, 2011



Mercury Theatre, Colchester
They'll be in their eighties, now, those thousands of evacuees who were shipped out of the cities to themiddle of nowhereto escape the Blitz. But their stories still have resonance with children today, who can empathise with the homesickness and the unlooked-for freedom.
The latest tale to be adapted for the stage is Michael Morpurgo's 1977 Friend or Foe, currently touring in a beautiful small-scale production from the enterprising Scamp Theatre.
The narrative is shared between two friends who end up on a Devon Farm. Dapper, respectable David, and the wilder, less inhibited Tucky, interrupt each other, arguing over how best to tell it as it was. And so they draw us into the storythe train journey, thecattle market, the foal on the farm, the village school. Until their West Country idyll is shattered by an incident which tests their friendship and their sense of duty.
The boys are persuasively characterized by Paul Sandys and Mathew Hampermannerisms, inflections, body language all instantly recognizable without being too modern. The story proper starts with David packing his cigarette cards and his books for the journey into the unknown. And the play ends, movingly, as it began, with his model Dorniera powerful image for a play which manages to combine realism with impressionism, and in little over an hour and a quarter to tackle some important moral dilemmas.
All the other characters in their story are played by just three actors. Janet Greaves is brilliant as the chain-smoking headmistress, and also plays the apple-cheeked farmer's wife, an ideal surrogate Mum for the lads. I loved Michael Palmer's beautifully conceived Mr Reynoldssurly at first, not at home with words, but won over by his helpful, appreciative house guests. He was also a German pilot, the Foe of the title, who, like his counterpart in War Horse, is a subtly rounded character, sympathetic at times, sinister at others. Chris Porter was the other airman, as well as an Army Officer and several other smaller roles.
Keith Baker's set suggests a bomb site, but as the boys take us on their journey, it effortlessly becomes, in their imagination and ours, Paddington station, the farmhouse kitchen, the moor and, memorably, the river bed. Daniel Buckroyd's assured direction manages changes of mood and pace with ease, keeping audience members of all ages engaged and involved. And his faithful adaptation, cleverly allowing for the demanding doubling in the adult roles, wisely retains elements of story-telling while adding some theatrical magic to Morpurgo's thought-provoking tale.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

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