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A CurtainUp London Review
Carrie (Sarah Edwardson) and her brother Nick (James Joyce) are sent to Wales by train. They meet Albert Sandwich (John Heffernan who reminds me a little of Tim Roth) and Albert, the last but two to be picked, goes off to a house called Druid's Bottom the name of which children find very funny. The last two evacuees, Carrie and Nick are billeted with the kindly but oppressed Aunty Lou (Kacey Ainsworth), and her gruff and frighteningly fierce older brother, Councillor Evans (Sión Tudor Owen).
At Christmas, Carrie and Nick are sent to fetch a goose from Druid's Bottom, where Mr Evans' sister Dilys, Mrs Gotobed (Prunella Scales) lives as a recluse. Mrs Gotobed lives alone with her West Indian maid Hepzibah (Amanda Symonds) and her nephew, Mr Johnny Gotobed (James Beddard), a man with cerebral palsy. The Willow children first meet Mr Johnny at night and are frightened by his flailing arms, awkward posture and strange speaking voice but they get to know him better and love going to Druid's Bottom for the hospitality of Hepzibah and the delicious teas she serves. Carrie and Nick hear the story of The Screaming Skull one of Hepzibah's tall tales of slavery and the skull of a child kept in the library.
The children are played by adults with childlike gestures and mannerisms but with excellent directorial restraint so that they are natural and believable, never adults pretending to be parodies of children. Carrie will walk away, her chin slightly raised in the air to show her removal from something she doesn't agree with. This naturalism I have put down to the director but it could be as much because of Bawden's beautifully descriptive writing. Here when Carrie feels no family will take her and Nick in, "She had already began to feel ill with shame at the fear that no-one would choose her, the way she always felt when they picked teams at school. Supposing she was left to the last!"
Sarah Edwardson's Carrie is a mature and sensible older sister, calming down rancour, avoiding conflict, protective and maternal. James Joyce's Nick continually thinks about his stomach, is hotheaded and dangerously outspoken in front of the volatile Mr Evans. John Heffernan as Albert finds a perfect place to read in the library at Druid's Bottom and is good company for Mrs Gotobed, who has 29 ball gowns given her by her dead husband and lives in the past. Carrie's War is exceptionally sensitively cast. The characterisations are precise and in James Beddard they have a star who trained with Graeae, the theatre company for handicapped actors. Prunella Scales' softly spoken Dilys Gotobed is eccentric but as delicate as a china shepherdess as she rarely strays from her chaise longue and then just to appear in the mirror as a ghost like figure.
The detailed set's middle is moss covered steps and draped with camouflage netting but at the sides the Evans' house. Kitchen downstairs, children's bedroom aloft, the new red carpet Mr Evans doesn't want walking upon on the stairs, and on the other side of the stage, the grandeur of Druid's Bottom. The welcoming kitchen downstairs with the ornate Welsh dresser and upstairs, the panels of Mrs Gotobed's scroll topped bedroom mirrors or the carved bookshelves of the library. Every piece of furniture and clothing hairstyle and hat is as carefully planned as a BBC Costume drama. Even the railway carriage scenes have smoke and an authentic looking wooden carriage with windows and lettering announcing they are in Third Class. The live Welsh choir sing hymns and "Land of My Fathers" in Welsh for plenty of atmosphere. A grown up Carrie with her own son tops and tails the wartime scenes as she returns to Wales after decades away.
The book, besides its obvious application to wartime detail in the curriculum has moral dilemmas to discuss, easy to fall into traps like believing the worst of people you don't like, or lessons about parents being blind to the faults of their own children. This play is the ideal holiday treat for eight to twelve year olds and for the generation who were children in wartime. Oh, and the children in the audience loved it sitting very still for the two and a quarter hours!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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