This little piggy never makes it

Set for a double period of brutality: Ralph (Declan Mosson), Jack (Jordan Laight) and Piggy (Ben Adams)

Lord of the Flies

Palace Youth Theatre, Redditch

****

WHEN Peter Brook filmed Lord of the Flies in 1961, he took his little bevy of mostly amateur actors to the Caribbean: Puerto Rico, and the small island of Vieques, off the Eastern Coast. The result: a masterpiece of black-and-white filming.

The youngsters of Redditch’s Palace Youth Theatre – and the numbers game required that many boys’ roles here were taken, often superbly well, by girls - had no such luxury with which to conjure up the remote paradise on which their aeroplane has crashed, wiping out all adults.

Yet in this often first-rate production, director Liz Sifford demonstrated with her promising cast time and again what can be achieved with scant or simple resources.

The restrained set (Alan Sifford) spoke mountains. A vast shattered cockpit, eerie, blackened, hung over rear stage left like an evil eye: the Beast, you felt, could see all, hear all, sense all. As an omen of what is to come in the story, as barbarism conquers humanity, and Christian values yield to idolatry and unbridled evil, it could scarcely have been bettered.

On the other side, a rock – the rock. I lost count of how many imaginative blockings Sifford managed with her actors – two simple levels, used to astonishing effect: a benign gathering place, but increasingly a marshalling yard for monstrosity. When the hunters gather, you sense the moral order about to be inverted.

William Golding’s modern morality tale, in playwright Nigel Williams’s stage adaptation (first seen in the 1995 RSC production) used here, is too famous, and almost too grimly pessimistic, to recite again.

Ralph (Declan Mosson) and Simon (Katie Booth) as a new order takes hold

A gentle alliance between two boys – Ralph (an increasingly assured Declan Mosson, middle class decency to the core; his meditative speech over the conch following Piggy’s demise, and breathless soliloquy while pursued, were classics) and an asthmatic ‘Piggy’ (the intelligent, gently gawky Ben Adams – the ‘Me auntie says’ type) – they alone, in a nice touch, have pure white shirts at the start - offers a safe haven for lost and orphaned younger children, before being assailed and riven by the sneering, amoral head chorister Jack (the pretty terrific Jordan Laight), a tyrant in the making.

All are practical or, in the villains’ case, moral victims – of ambition, bullying and bluster, of domineering and cruelty, and ultimately out-and-out violence, which consumes one boy (Simon – Katie Booth), wipes out a second (Piggy), nearly destroys a third (Ralph) and sullies all but a remnant of innocents whose values remain unaltered.    

The quality of performances here was remarkable, and extended throughout the cast. As an aside, I particularly liked Tazz Palmer’s Maurice – the problem member, a thinker, holding back his own Jack-like propensities – and his sidekick (I think Eve Parker’s Bill). These were performances that held the eye and ear every time they emerged. Maurice’s soliloquy on Piggy’s death was one of the best – and best spoken - things of the evening.

The small idiosyncratic one – I think Molly Seaborn’s Percival? – the child who ‘saw the beast’ - created poignancy and atmosphere every time he uttered. He in fact sees things as they are: presciently, ‘Is it war, then?’

Alex Cottom’s initially unimposing but increasingly warmongering Roger went on to prove a ghastly lesson in Martin Bormann-like loyalty to the leader. Mein Führer, right or wrong; Roger became (here, as in the book) almost more ruthless and bloodlusting than Jack: quite some achievement, given Laight’s brutal portrait of grisly implacability.

However one stood out from the others: out of Simon, Katie Booth built an extraordinary, troubled boy. Mosson’s Ralph and Adams’ Piggy are differentiated by their basic, old-fashioned decency (the others in their group have not yet aged sufficiently); but Simon is ‘other’: he is a mystery, as if of, or in touch with, another world.

Booth captured all of this, and more: in her you could sense, see even, the magic of his intuition, perceptive way beyond his years; his moral compass (he is, indeed, the stranded party’s ‘soul’); and worst of all, his apparent death wish.

The first hunt for the pig was superbly enacted; but almost already, we were getting onstage the signs that the ‘real’ pig would be Simon. This was high quality directing, anticipatory, on the pulse; and with it went hugely poignant, impressive acting.

Booth’s Simon also squeals – cries – like a pig. It was an unnerving and harrowing vocal effect, and with the boy’s fabulous, almost yelping soliloquy - albeit not all of which you could quite catch the words of - only added to the growing evidence that this was a remarkable, profoundly empathetic performance.

Warriors on the rock. Roger (Alex Cottom) at rear with the pupil tribe

There were odd touches from Sam n’ Eric I liked, just here and there from Jordan Searle’s Eric, the gawkier of the two - tied, as it were, at the waist. Jack (the only choir aspect I didn’t like was the rather weedy robes the new arrivals initially turned up in) never gave an inch: Laight’s stance, and moves, were never less than forceful, her capacity for barefaced aggression impressive (‘Chiefs don’t have to say; chiefs decide’); she handled dialectic like a master disputer.

Her words some times lacked the penetrating clarity of her sharper corrupt young accomplices, but the verbal battle with a rebellious (and not yet committed) Maurice was terrific on both sides; and Jack’s Houdini-like response to the challenge ‘What do you want to do?’: ‘I want to dance, I want to feast’ sounded a pretty attractive proposition. Simon’s death is, amongst other things, Jack’s turning point. From then on, he is pure evil.   

The moves were strikingly well mapped, and I increasingly liked the blocking – on and off the rock: some repositionings had a powerful impact; several small units were cleverly arranged, not least as the two sides (or sometimes three groupings) became important.

Sifford had drilled her cast to know exactly what they were doing; there was not a single hesitation. I didn’t quite understand why Ralph seemed somehow caught up in the capture of Simon (although an impressive pink cyclorama impacted well), but I suspect it may be true to the book.

Piggy’s death was perfunctory, underbuilt rearstage and too brusque – almost comic - and weakened by the fact the play, or this reading, didn’t dictate earlier the symbolic breaking of his glasses, so crucial a prophetic sign and a turning point in the whole. Roger’s late obscenity, while funny, was out of character with the rest.

The staging of the initial crash was so intelligent – characters skilfully arranged, with no props, to look like an airline cabin – and the use of light so effective from the outset, that this production won us from the start. The end of the Brook film, when the camera pans up from a terrified Ralph on to the foot and then white shorts of a naval officer, is too much to be able to equal. I thought the final chase of Ralph was a mite weak, and the denouement itself, well enough done, could have been more strikingly choreographed. But the moment of silence before it – and several other such earlier in the play – seemed brilliantly judged. The curtain calls were impeccable, and that’s always a sign of a good show. To 01-02-14.

Roderic Dunnett

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