Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Lone Piners return to the Long Mynd

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
Pentabus Rural Theatre Company's production of 
The Lone Pine Club 
(a new play by Alice Birch) 
at Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire,  
Saturday 18 July

If you weren't already familiar with Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine adventures, what would you make of Pentabus's theatrical production The Lone Pine Club? That the stories are ginger-beer-infused tales, à la Famous Five, about a group of 1950s children ... and a small dog?  That there's an element of Peter Pan - of not wanting to outgrow the age of adventures and fierce loyalty to true friends? That there's also a hint of a darker side - of the atavistic swearing of secret oaths in blood, of the untamed Lord of the Flies world of children unconstrained by spoilsport parents?

And for those of us who know - and love - the Lone Pine books, what were we to make of the prospect of four young adult actors embodying the characters of our treasured childhood books? 

Unsure what to expect, on a glorious July Saturday, we attended the first performance of Alice Birch's play in the familiar but always breathtaking setting of Carding Mill Valley, in the heart of the Long Mynd. Pentabus had set up a marquee  - foregoing the opportunity to perform against the authentic backdrop of the Shropshire Hills themselves.  The choice not to stage it in the open air was a real shame for all sorts of reasons. The marquee was uncomfortably hot for audience and actors and it seemed paradoxical for the Lone Piners to re-enact their many outdoorsy adventures indoors on such a beautiful summer's day.  As my sister - a veteran of Shropshire's amateur dramatics scene - pointed out, even if it rains, the spectators are usually prepared with umbrellas so it's only the actors who get wet (and the Lone Piners never minded a bit of rain.)

The four actors convincingly took on the roles of David, Peter, Dickie and Mary (and Mackie) as well as bringing to life a host of other characters including, with great comic effect, the rather overconfident journalist Dan Sturt and the ghastly Miss Ballinger with her trademark 'flip-up' spectacles.

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
In taking on the Lone Piners, Pentabus faced a difficult task. Their target audience was children 8-12 (but the play is suitable for all ages.)  However, there seemed only a few children present, the youngest watching in polite bemusement, while the majority of the audience seemed to be - like me - adults of a certain age.  Presumably, many remembered the books fondly ... and herein lies the real challenge: how to make the play enjoyable for young children who don't remember the original books without upsetting the grown-ups for whom the memory of reading Malcolm Saville's books is dearly-held.   

Some of you will recall Channel Four's comedy special from 1982, Five Go Mad in Dorset - a parody of Enid Blyton's Famous Five starring Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. There was a danger that Pentabus might have strayed into the same territory, but they chose to appeal sincerely to modern children rather than satirise the genre for adult consumption.  But it's a fine balance:  at times they did appear to be parodying Malcolm Saville; at other times it seemed a heartfelt homage. 

The books were, of course, written in prose and Malcolm Saville's atmospheric evocation of real places is one of the enduring pleasures of the original adventures. Some of his lyricism did find its way into the dialogue and I would have liked to have seen more of this aspect of the stories in the play. One facet that was very well conveyed, though, was the developing relationship between Peter and David - and David's jealous dislike of Dan Sturt. The characters seemed convincingly surprised and confused by their growing feelings for one another.

For the modern audience the Gay Dolphin became the Dolphin Hotel, complete with a hilarious Fred Vasson (the hotel's friendly porter).  The quick switches between actors playing multiple parts was very funny, especially the flipping between David and the elderly antiques dealer Albert Sparrow.  All the actors worked hard to cover so many characters - and four adventures - in 70 minutes without a break.

(c) 2015 Tony Gillam
The play urges the audience - old and young - to be adventurous and to become Lone Piners themselves.  Pentabus have certainly been adventurous in staging a version of  these classic but now somewhat neglected books. It would be wonderful to think the play might inspire new young readers to read the books for the first time or at least, as is more likely, I suspect, encourage old readers to revisit and rediscover the pleasures of the lone Pine Club.

Pentabus are touring The Lone Pine Club. For details, follow the link here.

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).