This Was the World and I Was King at Brockley Jack Theatre
The HookHitch Theatre’s This Was the World and I Was King tries too hard to tug at our heartstrings. It focuses on the motif that has been writers’ fodder for centuries: children’s ability to overcome adversity (which in this case is the dark presence of World War One) through the power of imagination. At times it feels like a crass pastiche of previous work, Five Children and It comes to mind. Its redeeming factors are the incorporation of puppets, an original soundtrack, which is performed by the actors, and excerpts from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.
The children use the set as a playground for creativity. Handmade puppets make for some beautifully crafted scenes, but they are gloss that covers what would otherwise be manic and overacted games. Not using child actors is the play’s greatest downfall. Whilst Laura Trundle (Evelyn) and Laura Hannawin’s (Lily) performances are laudable, they struggle to recreate the nuances of children’s innocence and imaginative vivacity. The actors’ failure to play children unintentionally symbolises how adults can never recapture the blissful naivety of childhood.
The play is a beautiful ode to the oral storytelling tradition, narrating events through folk music and letters. At times, however, this folk singing teeters on the edge of turning the play into a live rendition of a Mumford and Sons music video. The staging and technical elements are outstanding, given the restraints of the space. The simply constructed set is a blank canvas for the imagination, and props are chosen with precision, making almost every item a symbolic gesture to childhood, such as the ship’s wheel placed in the window in homage to Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island. Lighting effectively contrasts atmospheres and signifies time shifts between the parallel narratives; the older Evelyn, reminiscing on her past, is shrouded in somber blue light, whereas a warm, golden glow floods the stage to signal childhood scenes.
The production is a pleasant 75 minutes, and the cast engages the audience for the most part. But it feels as if it is randomly picking emotive storylines with the sole intention of creating a heartfelt response. Without fully developing any of them it makes the play seem shallow and unfinished. The seesaw between childish innocence and the gritty experience of the adult world is too obvious when set in the context of World War One, and could have been more moving and relatable in an era closer to the audience’s childhood.
This Was the World and I Was King is on at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 2nd until 20th February 2016, for further information or to book visit here.