War Games At The Tabard Make For An Entertaining,Thought-Provoking Evening
Penny Flood reviews Custard Boys
War is a terrible thing and it does terrible things to people, and not just those caught up in the fighting. It can wreck the lives of the people left at home, especially the children. During the Second World War millions of children were evacuated out of the cities to the relative safety of the countryside, where they went to live with strangers who were often hostile. Away from their mothers and friends and the lives they knew, for many of them the experience was pretty horrible. Custard Boys at the Tabard, is about a group of boys who were evacuated to Norfolk, how they coped and the affect they had on the locals. All of which is complicated by the arrival of Mark, an Austrian Jewish refugee. Mark is played by Andrew St. Pierre whose sensitive and mature performance provides the play with a heart that is deeply moving.
The play is adapted from the highly acclaimed book of the same name; sad and amusing by turns, it delivers a thought provoking evening as it opens a window on a world very few of us know about. All credit must go to the cast of seven young actors who give enthusiastic, energetic and versatile performances, with some of them doubling up or even trebling up to play the adult roles.
Left to their own devices, the boys have to fend for themselves and make sense of their strange, new world. Joining a gang is the only way to survive, even if your gentle nature cries out against the horrors that your gang perpetrates on each other, rival gangs and other living things. For example, Peter (Jack Elliot Thomson), gives a sad little soliloquy about his deep unhappiness and how much he misses his mother.
With imaginations fired by the jingoistic rhetoric that they hear all the time, the boys play war games, and dream of the day when they can have guns and kill the Germans but this bravado is interwoven with pathos as in quiet moments they all miss their mothers and their homes lives. And there’s the abject terror as the war, once remote, come closer with the blitz on Norwich.
Against this background, with teenage hormones racing, a relationship blossoms between John (Charlie Cussons) and Mark, who doesn’t suffer from the British hang ups of gay love. He’s simply confused that they have never learnt about Freud. This developing love affair adds another level of danger to an already volatile situation and the action marches toward to a very dramatic end.
The other lads are the bullying gang leader Lewis, (played by Chiswick’s own Jack Cameron who studied at Arts Ed), Willy (Marco Petrucco) the unpleasant, local boy who joins this gang because he thinks they’re stronger than the other gangs, Felix (Josh Hall) who doubles up as an incompetent and scary school teacher, and the aggressive Jacob (Tom Sanderson) who also plays John’s mother. When he’s not playing Peter, Elliot Thomson plays a hilarious cadet drill instructor, as well as cameo roles as Winston Churchill and a posh lady who invites them all to her garden party.
The play suffers from a lack of background as we aren’t given enough information about most of the boys, including not knowing their ages, to really understand why they’re the way they are. For example has Lewis assumed the role as leader because he’s the oldest, is it the sort of background he’s come from or is it something he’s learnt from his new guardians? And where does Jacob’s and Felix’s aggression come from? And why is Willy so horrible? And why are they so mindlessly cruel? An insight into this would have helped.
There was insufficient build up to the love scene between Mark and John, it needed better pacing and was crying out for a frisson of excitement in the build up to the first kiss.
In spite of these faults, the play tells a strong story about the wastefulness of war. This is its premiere and we’re lucky to have it at the Tabard.
Custard Boys runs until the 12 th May
April 16, 2012