It’s easy for memories to become confused, particularly in children. Fantasy becomes fact when hopes and dreams get in the way of reality.
Leave Hitler To Me Lad is a charming story rooted in the memories, real or otherwise, of playwright Haley Cox’s father, Brian, who was brought up in an Essex residential school during The Second World War.
Lincolnshire-based Duck Egg Theatre toured the musical through the northern provinces last year, had a foray to the south coast this summer, and had an opening this week at London’s Arts Theatre.
It’s a brave move for a small theatre company but one which, if it shows anything, is that there is a wealth of emerging young talent in the Humber area, particularly among its youth.
For the three children in the production I watched last night, thrust centre stage in LHTML – George Grattage, Sam Davies and Amy Leek – are a real find.
They give beautifully nuanced performances that are a credit to their drama coaches. None are overwhelmed (indeed, they rise to the occasion) by appearing at an off-West End venue with a company of professional actors.
Your heart breaks at Grattage’s 10-year-old wide-eyed and innocent Brian, who writes endearing letters to Winston Churchill asking for the return of his heroic RAF father; for the exuberant George (Sam) who annoys Gladys with his antics and plays at being a cowboy in Rawhide; or the clever little girl who just wants to know where she came from.
There’s a bit of the Harry Potter’s about this threesome but, unlike Rawling’s magic trio, these kids are dispossessed, displaced, unwanted and forgotten.
Leave Hitler To Me Lad is a phrase young Brian has tattooed on his heart. He thinks his father said it to him before taking to the skies to save Britain from the Nazis.
But seven years after the war ended the boy is still living in a home for orphans and evacuees. The truth is terrible and revealed through a series of flashbacks as the story plays out in 1952 and, with a much older Brian, in 1972.
There’s nothing sugar-coated or twee about Brian’s story, or, indeed, that of the other two children. They only have each other, and their kindly welfare officer Mr Bill, to get them through each day.
Head teacher Miss Bates (chillingly played by Rosie Fox) is detached and heartless, distancing herself from her charges less she become emotionally involved.
She occasionally calls the children out on parade where adults inspect the youngsters looking for lost relatives – and, it seems, hands them over with only cursory information from the visitors.
George suddenly finds himself with a new name and family while the desperate Gladys searches faces looking for her past. Young Brian is ever hopeful, fabricating an entire life for himself out of a phrase on a wartime poster.
Tragic, bittersweet and captivating, we follow their adventures through thick and thin – the shocks, the revelations, the awful secrets best kept hidden and the happy endings.
Written by Haley Cox and Ben Pringle (who wrote the theme tune for TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer), with the latter (and his mum Valerie) writing the songs, this is a family-inspired show that will delight both adults and children.
Rachel O’Hare gives a strong performance as club singer Pam, a teen victim of domestic abuse, while James Mountain convinces in diverse roles as the caring Mr Bill, and Pam’s 1970’s singing partner and boyfriend Barry.
Leave Hitler To Me plays at the Arts Theatre until October 18.
Leave Hitler To Me Lad
A trio of young actors give impressive performances in the post-war family musical, Leave Hitler To Me Lad, that’s based on the true experiences of playwright Haley Cox’s father, Brian.