Blue Remembered Hills: the kids are still not alright
by Drew Rowsome
It's easy to understand why the Good Old Neon theatre company would want to tackle Dennis Potter's 1979 teleplay Blue Remembered Hills. At the time it was shocking with its revelations that children, and by extension all human beings, are cruel and dangerous, and that they spin incredible lies to justify their evil whims. While those tragic facts are no longer shocking, they are still tragically relevant.
Good Old Neon state that they are "committed to investigating moral, political, and social paradoxes by integrating avant-garde aesthetics with traditional storytelling, which is shitty and vague as far as mandates go, but we're doing our best." Blue Remembered Hills is certainly doing their best and, while not an enjoyable evening, I don't think it was intended to be. The cast is committed and manage to maintain a fever pitch over an entire hour without flagging. And they create some truly uncomfortable and cringe-inducing (in a good way) moments.
The audience files in to an industrial white room to find the cast, all in white including face paint, staring blankly forward. Are we in a sci-fi future? A home for wayward mimes? An asylum? As the action gets going with a sweet but menacing folk song devolving into simian choreography and grunts, the ambiguity continues - these might be children, might be inmates, might be adults behaving like children, but they are clearly meant to represent the worst of mankind.
They play at military games, boast and brag, tell outrageous obvious lies, and commit casual brutal violence on each other and hapless animate and inanimate objects . Occasionally they confront the audience, mostly they are so intensely involved in their tiny world that safety is assured, we are not indicted though I did get some flung mud on my jeans.
Contemporary references are inserted with the all-encompassing evil of the "Chinese" getting the addition of "Mexican" and "Muslim." If that is in the original text, it is eerily prescient; if not, it drives the point home with the unseen king of the bullies Wallace Wilson a direct parallel to the US's current plight. Hayden Finkelshtain as Donald, or Donald Duck, is the ultimate victim and his bushy beard makes an uneasy parallel to anti-Muslim sentiment. But he is also, and this could have been explored further as it was very disturbing, the focus of sexual exploration in that peculiarly confused but determined way of children. Do we only hate what we secretly desire?
Jeff Dingle (The Baby, Lord of the Flies) is the audience's entry point and it is a delight to see him spin outrageous tall tales while also letting us see the terror behind his words that is inspiring them. His main foil is Michael-David Blostein who is desperately clinging to his status of second, after the mysterious Wallace Wilson, in the pecking order with a combination of brute force and sexual swagger. He is lean rough trade that both oozes danger and enticement. He meets his match in the sheer solidity of Alexander Offord who wants to usurp the throne.
Vince Deiulis, the keeper of the knife and clad in a cowboy hat, fights his stutter and being, all wide-eyed and lost, excluded from the battle for supremacy. The women, Nicola Atkinson and Ara Glenn-Johanson, send up stereotyped roles (again less surprising than 1979) but Atkinson gets to have some delicious fun as a merciless manipulator to compensate for being the ostensibly weaker sex.
Director/designer/choreographer Nicole Wilson (The Importance of Being Earnest) doesn't quite solve the problem of the location and focus - there is a lot going on and the revamped school classroom clings stubbornly to its former purpose without allowing the audience's focus to be pinpointed where it needs to be. This is frequently turned to an advantage with some quite startling jump scares and the addition of another layer to the children or adults question.
In these times we need theatre that stimulates thought and issues a cry to action. And we constantly need to be reminded that we don't have to be base or casually cruel. Blue Remembered Hills is a brave attempt, mining the retro to reflect the current, and is a great showcase for a cast that gets a chance to demonstrate an intense emotional range.
Blue Remembered Hills runs until Fri, Feb 24 at Artscape Youngplace, 180 Shaw St, Studio 107, goodoldneon.ca