Review: Leave Hitler To Me, Lad

Above the Arts, Tuesday 6 October 2015

Brian is the ultimate poster child for the displaced children of the Second World War, in more ways than initially meet the eye. Still unclaimed by his family, left in an Essex school seven years after World War Two, the small nervous boy with his wide, earnest eyes and tendency to wet the bed is a reminder that while “Operation Pied Piper” took children to safety, it didn’t always grant them security.

sonnyBrian’s status as poster child is cemented further by the folded notice he carries around with him, a piece of public service propaganda that is mirrored on the floor of the stage. Too young to remember the family he had before the war, naive Brian has adopted the man in the poster as his father figure. The poster’s message – “Leave Hitler to me sonny – you ought to be out of London” – becomes, in Brian’s desperate imagination, the last words remembered from a doting dad who is doing his best to return.

Penned by Writer/Director Haley Cox, the playscript is based on real events but seems to spend more time signposting than storytelling, and frustration mounts as the problematically streamlined ensemble act out everything that could be explained, and explain everything that could be acted. A chalkboard locates the action between February 1952 and September 1972, and Leave Hitler To Me, Lad pulls together a messy collage of cultural references that feels contrived and inaccurate against the apparent speed of the plot. One of Brian’s fellow lost children quotes from Charlotte’s Web, which was published eight months later, and another character delivers a sultry ode to Marilyn Monroe’s “Mr President”, three months before the iconic siren first seduced the world with those notes. As the narrative makes its frantic attempts to set the scene, the plot really suffers.

While the timescale could certainly do with some grounding, and the narrative structure is haphazard and far too complex, Designer Barney George has done well to pack the play’s numerous geographical and chronological settings into this tiny studio venue, with a real ‘make do and mend’ spirit. Borrowing from propaganda of the time, the wartime image suspended upstage provides both the physical and contextual backdrop; downstage, the potato sack detailing and faded bunting provides the thrifty nostalgic vibe that gels well with some of the more sentimental, xylophone-accompanied scenes. The orange leaves that coat the floor provide an interesting, mobile detail and interact well with the tree that rudely interrupts the middle of the stage. That said, the Autumnal leaves do little to ground the production in February 1952, and the tree does little to support a clear view of the performance.

Ben Pringle’s score is peppered with catchy numbers that are emotional without being saccharine, but excels most when it bears its rock ‘n’ roll influences proudly – underlining the dynamic cultural turbulence of the time. The three child actors – Amy Leek, Sam Davies and George Grattage – are quick to echo these transatlantic references, adopting Western movie postures and American accents as they play a game based on Rawhide. While, throughout, some urgently overlapped lines seem like strained errors, these children bring a genuine sense of spontaneity to the night. Under their lively influences, even the script’s most cliched lines glisten with a certain authenticity.

2 thoughts on “Review: Leave Hitler To Me, Lad

  1. London County Council residential schools were some of the first test child audiences for publications after the war, sometimes gaining manuscripts a year in advance of release dates. This was especially prevalent in American publishers wishing to follow the general trend of the time In reaching British audiences. There are records available with Hackney Council.

    My Mother came from the same background at Hackney Cottage Schools and I’ve been following this production with interest as an avid researcher myself. I look forward to seeing it on Saturday.

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