What started out as a bit of fun is beginning to turn ugly. The jokes are waning. The cold is starting to bite. It’s 1936 and 27 boys from a school in south London are on a walking tour of the Black Forest in Nazi Germany. By the end of Pamela Carter’s new play, which is inspired by true events, five of them will be dead. How? Why? And what might we learn?
Director Oscar Toeman keeps the tone so light in the opening scenes that, much like the boys and their schoolmaster, you won’t realise this is a tragedy until much too late. Dressed in uniforms as crisp as their accents, three of the youngest students talk eagerly about representing their school and country. Lyons is excited about cake. Eaton is excited about everything. And Harrison has a fact, a motto and song for just about every scenario.
Played respectively by Matthew Tennyson, Vinnie Heaven and Hubert Burton, they pull on our sympathies without ever tipping over into sentimentality. The students are brave but vulnerable, likable but not always nice. With chests puffed out, they talk about breathing in great gulps of “foreign air” with a mixture of arrogance and naivety that makes us wincingly love the boys they are, but fear for the men they might become.
When the three talk about their elders, particularly their schoolmaster, their faces glow with admiration. Perhaps even love. They talk with relish about the Great War yet all but ignore the war that lies ahead, despite the swastikas that line the streets. They long to be taken by the hand – to be led rather than lead – no matter where those steps might take them.
There’s a lot bubbling away here and sometimes it’s hard to make out the wood from the trees. The snippets of tourist information about the Black Forest, complete with a metaphorically inclined tour guide who pops up near the end, don’t quite fit and the frequent leaps in time and perspective sometimes feel a bit tricksy. But there’s something about the connection between boyhood and Englishness, and the mutual comfort and danger these concepts provide, that really stings.
• At the Orange Tree theatre, London, until 28 May. Livestreamed on 12 May.