Leave Hitler to Me Lad continues at the Arts Theatre, London until 18 October.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Flagged up as ‘the untold story of a lost generation of war children,’ the Lincolnshire-based Duckegg Theatre Company’s Leave Hitler to Me Lad tugs pretty hard at the heartstrings as it explores the suffering of abandoned children and of families still reeling from the effects of the Second World War, years after the guns fell silent.
We’ve become accustomed, of course, to seeing black and white wartime news footage of very young, tearful evacuees being packed off to the countryside at rail stations, clutching teddy bears, sad little suitcases and gas masks, but this production hones in on 1952 when Britain was still pretty bleak, the end of rationing was still two years away and many war children still hadn’t returned ‘home.’ Just like Brian whose abusive alcoholic father goes AWOL for seven years – absent without love.
Not really a full-blown musical, this nevertheless succeeds, for the most part that is, in telling a poignant tale – the very personal one of artistic director/writer, Haley Cox’s, father Brian – and infusing it with touches of humour, plenty of very real human angst and a couple of decent tunes. Some of the music Ben Pringle’s (music and lyrics) mother wrote back in the 1970s and given the inspiration behind the show, it’s clear that direct personal experiences are the creative catalyst for many key moments.
Its success hinges on those playing the three young pupils at Great Stony School, Brian and fellow orphans Gladys and George brought to life with admirable assuredness by George Grattage, Amy Leek and Sam Davies.
Davies is no shrinking violet on stage, revelling in George’s OTT character, while Leek, at just 13, looks a very confident young lady indeed. A lot rests on the small shoulders of Grattage as young Brian, and his performance is hard to fault, and very easy to praise.
If there are a few faltering moments during the evening, that’s to be expected, but thankfully the trio of youngsters has the support of some multi-skilled professionals. The impressive, robust vocals of Rachel O’Hare, as Pam, give the production a needed lift when the drama flags and the script is a bit ponderous and slightly directionless. That’s not often though and there are certainly a few gems among the song list, like ‘Home’ and ‘Who is This Boy?’ – both being worthy of the West End, with a bit of fine-tuning.
Flitting, as the storyline does, back and forth from 1952 to 1972, tests the patience at times and breaks up the flow too often, but this hardworking cast of actor-musicians, not least Louis Labovitch (Brian/Eric) and James Mountain (Mr Bill/Barry) wins through with its unflagging enthusiasm and commitment to the creative cause. Come the dramatic, emotional climax then, Grattage’s characterisation of young Brian has certainly won our hearts and that’s to the whole cast’s credit.
The real question remaining though is over the exact fate of his pet rabbit, Pandy – was it natural causes or did it end up in a pastry overcoat courtesy of stern headmistress Miss Bates, played by the clearly very versatile Rosie Fox? We should be told.