The River Line at Jermyn Street Theatre

5
Charles Morgan's WWII play receives a very welcome revival
By Robert Iles

Charles Morgan's 1947 novel was originally brought to the stage in the 1950s in his own adaptation but despite success at the time it has not had any UK revival since then. Well, now it has with Anthony Biggs' production at Jermyn Street Theatre proving that it is still a relevant, moving and well written piece.

Set in 1947 and 1943 it is the story of one small group of allied escapees being moved down "The River Line" out of occupied Europe back to the UK. An hugely dangerous activity for the brave people who ran these escape routes who ran the risk that a German "ringer" might be introduced into the system resulting in the summary execution of all those involved. Written in three acts, this production is played with only one interval which works very well, surprisingly perhaps the small space of the Jermyn Street Theatre enhances the experience making it more immediate and intimate.

Act one feels like a preface, an introduction to the participants, the scenario and, by hint and rumour, to the history of these people ... by the end of it you can actually work out much of the overall plot - or you think you can. The second act is then a real revelation as we are taken back to the River Line, a group of allied fighters being held in a barn as part of their escape, waiting to move on to their next stop, fearful all the time that they might be found. I found this second act, which is played after the first without a break, to be fabulously atmospheric - genuine tension, beautifully drawn characters, claustrophobic presentation, really moving. The final act is one of twists and turns, never stretching credulity just drip feeding additional information that leads us, and the characters, to reassess all they thought they knew about themselves and each other. At the end I couldn't believe that the play is as long as it is, it felt like half the length, the audience were totally engrossed in the story on stage and I for one, was genuinely moved by it ...

Rhiannon Newman Brown's designs make best use of this quirky space and work well, assisted by the lighting and sound designs of David W Kidd and Phil Hewitt. Anthony Biggs' direction allows the actors the space and stillness they need to put over a play high on words, philosophy and tension - especially in the third act which could easily become a bit of a mess in less confident hands.

You certainly wouldn't know that this is Charlie Bewley's stage debut, sometimes a film actor comes over as just that, not here. Lydia Rose Bewley's Valerie is utterly credible, difficult given the nature of some of her speeches, but she never loses the core of her character, so neither do we. Lyne Renee's Valerie is beautifully observed and a delight to watch, as is the small, but significant part of her father played by Dave Hill. Christopher Fulford plays a strong Commander, a still point for all the activity around while Edmund Kingsley's slightly brash American teacher is completly right. Alex Felton's young escapee and Eileen Page's "Iron Duke" bring the warmth of the young and the old to the stage, the humanity for which the others were fighting

The play caused a lot of conversation afterwards, it is a revelation to see how the optimism for the world held in 1947 has played out, the hopes for peace, the inevitability of war, veiled references to the "east" and a belief that America could help save the world. This really does not feel dated and speaks volumes to a modern, thoughtful, audience. I, for one, am glad that this play has been revived and am very pleased to have had a chance to see it ...


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