Prunella Scales, Sarah Edwardson, James Beddard, Amanda Symonds, Kacey Ainsworth, John Heffernan, James Joyce, Daniel Llewelyn Williams, Sion Tudor Owen
Nina Bawden’s children’s novel Carrie’s War concerns the exploits of a pair of young evacuees who have been relocated from suburban London to rural Wales where they learn to come to terms with death and difference and the complexities of adult life.
Adapted by Emma Reeves, the stage production follows the book faithfully but does so in the most plodding, drawn out manner, sacrificing much of the sense of discovery and wonder that characterises the best children’s writing.
Carrie and Nick Willow are sent to live with the strict Mr Evans (Sion Tudor Owen), a local counsellor with a barrel-belly, clicking false teeth and a propensity to bellow, and his meek and rather down-trodden younger sister, Louisa (former Eastender Kacey Ainsworth). We get a glimpse of Mr Evans’ temperament when he restricts the use of the stairs for fear of wearing out the carpet.
Though well-looked after by Louisa the pair feel stifled by Mr Evans’ and his God-fearing ways and become increasingly distracted and fascinated with life at the nearby manor house, Druid’s Bottom, in which Mr Evans’ other ailing, sister, Mrs Gotobed (Prunella Scales) now lives along with her kind housekeeper Hepzibah Green (Amanda Symonds) and Mr Johnny, a disabled cousin of her late husband (played by the disabled actor James Beddard). It is also the home of a fellow evacuee: the spindly and uptight Albert Sandwich.
Hepzibah delights the children with tales of cursed skulls and they suspect her of being a kind of white witch, though this only strengthens their affection for her. The realities of wartime life only occasionally infringe on their fun, in the form of the arrival of in town of American soldiers and of Mr Evans boorish son, Frederick, home on leave; there are also repeated admonishments from most of the adults to behave themselves because of the war.
Despite the rather cluttered set design, Andrew Loudon’s production fails to evoke this sense of otherworldliness that the children encounter on arriving in their new home, a place of crumbling mansions, ancient yews, bottomless ponds and standing stones, a place which is supposedly shot through with a sense of the mystical, with an old pre-Christian power. In fact the only real effort at creating a sense of location comes through the repeated singing of Welsh songs, which is atmospheric at first but eventually rather tiresome. The staging is also rather messy with the set divided into three separate areas: Mr Evan’s house, Druid’s Bottom, and the fields in between. This means that for a lot of the time two thirds of the stage are in darkness, while the action takes place in one cramped corner.
Inevitably the three children are played by adult actors, not an unusual practice and probably a necessary one given the centrality of their roles, but in this case it is not always that easy to suspend disbelief over the matter of their ages – and one is inclined to giggle when John Heffernan’s tall, unavoidably grown-up Albert bridles at the unfairness of being a child and never being listened to. That’s not a dig at the performances, which in the case of Heffernan, Sarah Edwardson’s Carrie and James Joyce’s Nick are open and appealing, but is more the fault of the muddled nature of the production. The events of the book are simply laid out on stage with seemingly little thought towards pacing or visual drama.
The whole thing dawdles along, running at over two hours, with plenty of time for both children and adults to develop the fidgets. There are some touching and nuanced moments, particularly the way in which Mr Evans’ relationship with Carrie evolves emotionally, but other potentially moving episodes like Mrs Gotobed drifting towards death in her ostrich feather gown are utterly thrown away and the supposedly spooky moment in which a distraught Carrie brings a curse down on Druid’s Bottom, so potent on the page, just seems daft here.