We’ve all experienced being seven, but can we really remember how it felt? What games did you love to play? Who was your best friend? What did you want to be when you grow up? To prepare for their roles playing seven year olds in Northern Stage’s new production of Dennis Potter’s classic Blue Remembered Hills, the cast have been learning first hand by visiting Class 3Y at Hotspur Primary School.
The seven actors, along with director Psyche Stott and Assistant Director Rachel Oliver, joined in with games in the classroom, play time in the school yard and chatted to the children about their daily lives. But it wasn’t all fun and games – the team were all the time observing the group dynamic and how the children responded to different situations, looking for behaviours to take back into rehearsals and connections with their characters and how they relate to each other in the play.
Phil Cheadle (Henry IV, Shakespeare’s Globe), making his Northern Stage debut playing John, said, 'It was good to be reminded of their constantly changing energy. They are never still, their focus is always changing. It was great to bring this back to the rehearsal room.' Adrian Grove (Les Misérables, Queen’s Theatre) adds, 'The excitement goes right through their bodies when they’re telling you something. They just want to be part of whatever’s going on, whatever it is.'
David Nellist (Close the Coalhouse Door, Northern Stage) noticed how tactile the children were, 'They’re always touching each other. As adults we’re much more aware of our personal space.' Joanna Holden (Alice in Bed, Tender Buttons) playing Audrey adds, 'They don’t seem to worry about what others think.'
James Bolt (The Seagull, National Theatre) is playing Raymond: 'When we split into groups, none of the children wanted to be in a group with me or Adrian [Grove]. It took me back to when I was at Primary School and was really useful to use this feeling for Raymond. He isn’t an outsider but he is picked on at times.'
Dennis Potter famously cast adults as children in his BAFTA Award-winning play, to act as 'a magnifying glass to show what it's like to be a child, to see those little hierarchies, that competitiveness, those casual brutalities physically dramatised by adult bodies, that was what I was after - and the sudden tenderness.'
John Cook, author of Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen, the first full-length book studying Potter's work, explains the importance of casting adults as children in the play, 'The use of adult actors to play children in Blue Remembered Hills is such an effective device because adult actors embody the 'remembered' quality of the play's title: the fact that in memory it is always the present adult self which is superimposed upon the childhood memory of the past. Childhood in this play is presented as but a magnified reflection of the adult world with all its problems and imperfections and the use of adult actors as children brilliantly underlines this.'
Acclaimed theatre and film director Sir Richard Eyre, who was producer on BBC ONE’s weekly Play for Today series which first broadcast Blue Remembered Hills in 1979, told us, 'For Dennis, the device of getting adults to play children acted as a sort of magnifying glass. ‘I was trying to show childhood,’ he said, ‘not at one remove but straight on.’ This brilliant device provided unforgettably intense memories; writing children meant that the characters didn’t make long speeches, they didn’t remember far back, they used simple language rather than rhetoric and they all lived restlessly in the present tense.'
Blue Remembered Hills comes to Richmond Theatre from Tuesday 18 to Saturday 22 June.