Where are those grey remembered hills?

Northern Stage’s decision to stage Blue Remembered Hills on an empty monochrome stage is risky to says the least – but it comes off better than you might think.

Probably the most surprising thing about Blue Remembered Hills (apart from writing a play where adults play children and getting away with it – but then, this is Dennis Potter who loves to mess with your head so it’s not that big a surprise) is that this play made it to the stage at all. It was written and produced as a television play, and Potter never adapted it for the stage. On top of all this, 72 minutes is all very well for a TV programme, but it’s deadly for commercial theatre takings. And yet Blue Remembered Hills took a life of its own as a stage play and 34 years after the original screening, Northern Stage was all too eager to take this on.

The most notable feature of the play is, of course, a cast of seven seven-year-olds being played entirely by adults. This is not simply a practicality to circumvent the problems of having young children performing live on stage, but a deliberate decision on Potter’s part; because even in the screenplay – where  it wouldn’t have been too hard to have cast children – the cast is adults. There were a number of reasons, but the big one was the bring home to fact that even in young children, the pecking order, vanity and power-struggles aren’t that different to those of adults – if anything, they are even more vicious.

Adults playing children on stage isn’t too difficult for a professional theatre company. Actors playing obviously different ages may be a rarity on the screen, but it is quite common on the stage for all sorts of reasons. Audiences are used to this, and accept it. The only challenge is how to get seven adults to convincing behave like children. The first and obvious thing is to not shy away from all the tumbling and fighting you’d expect of children – Northern Stage does this fine – but Northern Stage really went to town on this and went to local schools, studying the movement of children in detail. I’m not sure it was necessary to go to all that effort – to be honest, watching Dennis Potter’s original on DVD would probably have done the job just as well – but, hey, it worked.

Now for the controversial decision: the staging. As the published script is simply the script of the screenplay, there is no guidance from Dennis Potter on how to make this work on the stage. There are seventeen different scenes, covering locations such as a big tree, a hollow, and a barn that gets set on fire, none of which can be cut from the story. There’s a lot of leeway for the director to decide on a solution, and the obvious solution would be a multi-purpose single set to cover all the scenes. But director Psyche Scott and designer Ruari Murchison take a very different approach. The set contains … nothing. No trees, no barn, just a grey carpet sloping up towards the back, and one multi-purpose ladder used to represent trees, barn doors and anything else that may be called upon.

There are two schools of thought here. One is that it’s a brilliant idea: it evokes the surrealism of Dennis Potter’s mind perfectly; audiences can easily fill in the gaps in their mind; besides, if the audience have already accepted adults are playing children they won’t have any trouble adapting to the scenery; and it gives Northern Stage’s production a unique individuality from all the other productions of the play. The other school of thought is that it’s a terrible idea: it’s imposing a vision of a Potter play that was never the author’s intention; it’s confusing to the audience to work out what’s going on; when the audience are adjusting to adults playing children you don’t want to complicate things further; and this is an example of a theatre company trying to be clever. We could debate this forever. Ultimately, it’s down to personal preference with no correct answer.

But whilst this choice might not be to everyone’s tastes, it’s a choice they’ve put a lot of thought into. When the scene changes from a meadow to deep in the woods, it’s achieved through projecting tree silhouettes on to the back wall – simple, but very effective. The burning barn scene is always a difficult challenge for the stage, but doubly difficult when you have no barn. Instead, they do this with smoke, including smoke coming out of poor old Donald. The sample members of the audience I spoke to afterwards (admittedly a small sample to two, but a sample) seemed to like the stage, so Northern Stage must be doing something right.

You’ll never please everyone when you change the set this radically – to be honest, I’d probably do a more conventional set if I was directing – but abstract sets like this do work. The trick, I think is to ensure, 1) your audience understands what the set is supposed to represent (sometimes Northern Stage fails on that front), and, more importantly 2) you do this wholeheartedly and make sure your audience understands it’s what you meant to do all along. This time, Northern Stage achieved both.

It is probably fair to say that Northern Stage are entirely within their comfort zone here. The most successful productions of theirs are almost always revived contemporary plays. But it’s a niche that they’ve carved out for themselves for a reason, and when you’re established as the leading company for this kind of theatre you can afford to take risks with things like abstract staging. With Newcastle having two producing theatres and one of the least supportive councils in the country, people may eventually ask if Newcastle only needs one. Productions like this from Northern Stage are a good example of what you gain from two.