Made In Colchester at the Mercury Theatre Colchester
Seventy-five years to the day since Britain went to war with Germany. When Chamberlain spoke and the first sirens wailed, Operation Pied Piper was already underway, relocating thousands of evacuee children to the relative safety of the countryside.
Michael Morpurgo's novel, of 1977, tells of two such London lads, and their idyllic time in Devon – an idyll which is shattered by the enemy, testing their friendship and their moral fibre.
This is not the first time Davey and Tucky have taken to the stage – there is a musical version out there, and this adaptation, by Daniel Buckroyd, toured a few years ago in a shorter, simpler incarnation.
It captures wonderfully the sense of a Boy's Own adventure, and the anguish, holding the audience rapt as the story unfolds.
Matthew Cullum's production uses a simple set, with two inclines, suggesting a bombed-out house, transformed into the moors, the farmhouse kitchen or Paddington station. Lighting alone creates a sunny breakfast, or looming shadows. The soundscape is evocative, too: the ticking clock, the sheepdog and his flock.
The style is lean, inventive and very physical. The play begins with David blowing the dust off his scale-model Dornier before all five actors recreate the dogfight and the ditching. Journeys are key: the Tube, the steam train, the cart, the army truck. Suitcases, symbols of transience, are a constant presence.
The two evacuees are strongly drawn – the thoughtful, quieter David [Jake Davies], his young life blighted by his father's death, and the cheeky, outgoing Tucky [Séan Aydon]. They both convince totally as the 11-year-olds caught up in a war they struggle to understand, and as their slightly older selves looking back on those distant days in Devon. Their recollections form a narrative framework, as they bicker about the best way to tell it as it really was.
Janet Greaves, a survivor from the 2011 tour, plays the boys' formidable chain-smoking Headmistress as well as David's mother and the lovely, motherly farmer's wife, who welcomes her young visitors as the family she never had. More reluctant is Nicholas Tizzard's sympathetically drawn Reynolds, the farmer – a superb characterization, with the closing scene especially moving. Tizzard also plays Dieter, the good German [the Foe of the title], who is the lads' own Magwitch, surviving on the marshes thanks to their generosity.
Chris Porter, who also toured in 2011, plays an impressive roster of smaller roles, including the wounded airman and a wonderful bus driver.
This is a magical piece of theatre – the stylistic river scene is superbly realised with sound, light and kitchen furniture – which combines a rattling good yarn with reflections on friendship, patriotism and the waste of war. It speaks directly to us all – from the young children in the front row to the real-life evacuee in our midst, who has vivid memories of her own journey to Devon, seventy-five years ago …
production photograph: Robert Day