June 25, 2009 8:02 pm

Carrie’s War, Apollo Theatre, London

To today’s children, wartime evacuation may be hard to comprehend, but to many of their grandparents it was a life-changing reality. My mother-in-law was sent to America for four years that would produce lifelong friendships. Carrie, in Carrie’s War , is despatched rather less romantically to a Welsh mining village, but her experience still opens her eyes and colours the rest of her life. And this quietly poignant staging of Nina Bawden’s novel catches the mixture of emotions that afflict Carrie and conveys the vivid strangeness of the world that greets her. For older theatregoers it may bring back memories; for younger people it will bring history to life. I took an eight-year-old and a 12-year-old to see it. They loved it.

It is not an imaginative or remarkable production: it lacks the invention of really good children’s theatre. But Andrew Loudon’s unfussy, rather old-fashioned staging soon becomes completely absorbing.

12-year-old Carrie, and her brother Nick, are billeted with Mr Evans, a chapel-going councillor with false teeth and firm views (Siôn Tudor Owen, giving Brian Blessed a run for his money). The children soon become aware of the discrepancy between his religious fervour and his bullying manner, as he browbeats his kind, timid sister (a lovely performance from Kacey Ainsworth).

The starchy set-up is in marked contrast to that at Druid’s Bottom, where Mr Evans’ estranged older sister, Mrs Gotobed, lives. Here there is warmth and love from the housekeeper Hepzibah (Amanda Symonds), who cares for both the ailing Mrs Gotobed (Prunella Scales) and her disabled relative Johnny (James Beddard). Carrie gradually grows up, learning about family feud and breakdown, about selfless love, about betrayal and perspective, and, in her friendship with another evacuee, Albert, about attraction.

The compacting of the narrative for stage turns some episodes into melodrama, but Emma Reeves’s adaptation still grips. There are fine performances from James Joyce as Nick and John Heffernan as Albert, and a touching one from Sarah Edwardson as Carrie, an ordinary girl in extraordinary times. ★★★☆☆

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