Ten is a funny, in-between age to be. It’s a long time since you were a babe in arms but you’re still a way off being a grown-up. As far as children’s theatre goes, you’re way too old for Peppa Pig Live! but not yet old enough for a class trip to Stratford. To its enormous credit then, this new show from North Lincolnshire company Duckegg manages to negotiate that tricky age gap and present a vivid, engrossing theatre experience for older children.
Leave Hitler to Me, Lad takes place – for the most part, anyway – in early February 1952, just after the death of George VI. It centres on Great Stony School, a real-life institution in Hackney, part boarding school, part care home. The residents are three young children, Brian, George and Gladys, who were evacuated there during the Blitz but still haven’t been collected. Like human left luggage, they hope against hope that their families will come for them one day. In the meantime, they’ve forged a sort of family of friends. Our main focus, ten-year-old Brian, is sure that his father must have become a star RAF pilot in the war and been unavoidably detained since. Then, one day, a young girl comes to Great Stony to find Brian and tell him the more prosaic truth.
As will be apparent, this throws up all kinds of gnarly issues. In the wrong hands, it could have become a ghastly, ponderous, worthy mess. Instead, the show has a real lightness of touch, involving a whole web of richly-drawn characters, each with their own engaging story. Perhaps most impressively, it achieves this with a serious dollop of ambition, with the small cast playing multiple roles, skipping back and forth in time and depicting key scenes in an almost impressionistic fashion. Not only that, but it’s bordering on being a musical. Nifty original songs are peppered throughout, in addition to which the cast perform a low-key soundtrack linking the action with guitar, piano and drums. There’s no ‘playing it safe for the kids’ here, no syrupy sentiment and no cartoony Horrible Histories handling of the past. There are lots of laughs, but there are also some highly powerful dramatic moments. They’re judged sensitively, thankfully, and never inappropriate for the young audience – though they might be a little too much for those younger than Brian himself.
In all, this is a triumph of strong, bold writing and a fine cast – three of whom, don’t forget, are children, and all deserve special credit. Jonah Kensett, playing Brian, manages to convey a whole complex emotional journey with quiet confidence and admirable subtlety.
There’s not too much fault to be found here. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a little too long and intricate for young audiences. Then again, it’s too easy to underestimate what they can handle. And the title is, on the face of it, perhaps a bit misleading. This isn’t a play about the war, not really, but rather its aftermath: unreliable memories, waning expectations and a deep desire to belong. It’s an unconventional piece, and all the better for that. Currently touring small, intimate venues, it deserves to be more widely seen by its target audience.
What: Leave Hitler to Me, Lad
Where: Waterside Arts Centre, Sale
When: March 6, 2014 and touring until March 8, 2014
More info: www.duckegg.org.uk, http://watersideartscentre.co.uk/