The Theatreguide.London Review
Apollo Theatre Summer 2009
Nina Bawden's novel has become something of a crossover classic, a children's book read and appreciated by adults.
It tells of city children evacuated during World War II to a Welsh village where they encounter not only the predictable culture shock, but tales of a dark past, hints of magic and mysticism, a bit of Famous Five-style adventure, and memory-creating experiences that continue to haunt the narrator when she revisits the spot thirty years later.
And so it is a real shame that Emma Reeves' stage adaptation, as directed by Andrew Loudon, is so lifeless, unimaginative and uninvolving.
I brought along as my expert consultant a 15-year-old who read and loved the book a few years ago, and she quickly spotted one of the problems. The frame device means that the actress playing the adult Carrie, Sarah Edwardson, also plays her in the flashbacks, with the other children also played by adult actors - and none of them have been directed to make even the token effort to play children.
We are always aware of adults playing, at most, late teenagers rather than pre-teens, with even the relative ages muddied, as Carrie's little brother sometimes seems her elder.
So any hint of verisimilitude, or any assistance in suspending our disbelief, is denied us. We watch the action from the outside, never drawn into the young people's world or experience which is, of course, where the whole charm and power of the book lie.
(As I've had occasion to remark before, I've got to start taking this kid to more shows, to help me with my reviews.)
My consultant also remarked that Sarah Edwardson was not making Carrie as enjoyable and attractive a character as she is in the book, though she also saw that, by depriving us of Carrie's narrative voice, the play kept us from getting inside her and seeing the events through her eyes.
And I saw that most of the secondary characters were reduced to mere sketches or cartoons, that the obligatory mean and gruff Welshman in the host family was being played by Sion Tudor Owen as too obviously a teddy bear with a soft centre, and that the epic journeys through a scary forest weren't scary at all.
The novel gains texture through harrowing tales of the slave trade that once enriched this village, but they are reduced to barely-relevant digressions, as are the hints of magic.
Prunella Scales gets co-star billing for what amounts to a cameo as a dying old lady, and all that can be said about her performance is that her Welsh accent and her audibility fluctuate widely even in her brief appearances.
Those who know the book might bring enough in the way of fond memories to paper over the cracks in this adaptation, though my companion's experience suggests that they will rather be acutely aware of how much is missing.
Those who don't know the book will just find it a pretty heavy slog.
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