As the adaptation of one wartime children’s novel, War Horse, extends its West End run, it is joined by another, though Carrie’s War takes a more traditional approach to stage storytelling.
There are no puppets in the Novel Theatre production of Carrie’s War, nothing of the jaw-dropping impact of seeing a life-size horse recreated on stage. Instead there is a simpler telling of a simpler tale.
In fact, though it is set during the Second World War, the fighting has very little impact on the story as a whole, barring the interspersed radio clips which punctuate the action as a reminder of the world outside Druid’s Bottom and the Welsh mining town to which Carrie Willow and her brother have been evacuated.
It is more a tale of isolation and survival in an alien world. The whole audience – or at least those of us without Welsh heritage – shares the children’s sense of otherness when the action moves to the valleys early in proceedings, a move highlighted by the sound of sheep and the arrival of a male voice choir. As the town’s inhabitants chat away in the local language, we, like the evacuees, feel totally bemused at what is happening, guessing the content of the conversations by mood and gesture. It is unsettling, as it should be.
Yet it is not long before Carrie – well-mannered if naïve in the hands of Sarah Edwardson – and James Joyce’s impetuous, argumentative, petulant Nick, have settled in and explored their new home, discovering the mystical, haunting secrets at the heart of both family and community.
In this time of war and this strange new world, nothing is black and white: witches may just be charismatic, wise women; monsters may just be someone you don’t understand; evil might just be an inability to express yourself.
Yet there is a dark, spooky heart to this coming-of-age tale: an ancient curse which touches on the unquestionable evil of slavery and the parallel journey of a young boy ripped unripe from the bosom of his parents. The broken fencing and dark, hanging netting of Edward Lipscomb’s set reflect this lurking menace, and when the curse rears its head it induces shivers that would convince audiences that it were really winter outside rather than mid-June.
At times the children, particularly Carrie and new friend Albert (John Heffernan), seem older than expected, wise beyond their years in the style of an American teen drama, though maybe that is just the effect of war. We often hear the accusation that kids today grow up too fast; maybe it is not such a new phenomenon.