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Red Sky Review – A Youngish Perspective

FIVE STAR REVIEW

I have a great love of Laurie Lee’s writing; no one captures landscape, nostalgia and world exploration quite as evocatively as him. My university dissertation included an analysis of Cider With Rosie, his best-known memoir that paints the English countryside with glowing sentiment. Unsurprisingly, it was to my utter delight when I discovered that a compilation of his works accompanied by a string orchestra would be performed at the Oxford Playhouse.

Red Sky at Sunrise is Laurie Lee’s celebrated trilogy, skilfully adapted by Deirdre Shields. It documents his life from a childhood spent in the Cotswolds to his military service against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. While I’m confident that most of the audience were familiar with Lee’s writing or fans of Orchestra of the Swan, this performance wouldn’t have required prior literary or musical knowledge to be enjoyed. In fact, this blend of spoken word and music is exactly the sort of format in which the trilogy ought to be presented. Laurie Lee’s extraordinary prose is captivating, sensuous and filmic; to lift it off the page with actors and musicians felt like a logical conclusion.

 

Anton Lesser

Orchestra of the Swan and Anton Lesser photographed by Lucy Barriball at the RSC 

Laurie Lee’s captivating trilogy is soulfully reimagined for the stage with an outstanding orchestral arrangement

Led by director-violinist David Le Page, the musicians took to their seats while actors Anton Lesser and Charlie Hamblett entered from each side, past a few agricultural props that framed the stage. The company donned neutral tones across linen shirts, dungarees, cardigans and a couple of headscarves; the lighting was golden and warm. None of this felt pastiche, but instead cemented the audience in the humble rusticity of early 20th-century Gloucestershire in the summertime.

“My place is called Slad,” Anton Lesser commenced, as a black and white photograph of Lee’s childhood village appeared. Lesser and Hamblett expertly relayed extracts from Cider With Rosie, oscillating between Lee’s younger and older self and other key characters with humour and poise. Each scene was perfectly matched by the music. Lee’s earliest memories were echoed in Elgar’s spirited Chanson de Matin. A mischievous account of his school days was played out with lighthearted finger plucking of Britten’s Playful Pizzicato. The audience became pin-drop silent as Danny Boy was recited, a premonition, I felt, to Lee’s later occupation as a soldier.

Lee then set sail to Spain with his fiddle and a sense of adventure, as he documents in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. We were transported to Europe by classical guitarist Mark Ashford, who played the expressive Latin melodies to mesmerising effect. That sense of opportunity and the unexpected which ties in with early adulthood was vividly captured by Lesser and Hamblett, as Lee experienced a culture far from that of his sleepy Gloucestershire valley. Spanish characters were comic and mysterious, mirrored with a more intricate sounding musical score.

I was expecting to feel affected by Lee’s phenomenal storyline in the third novel, A Moment of War. But put alongside images of the International Brigades and with music and foot stomping that recalled soldierly rallying, the latter half of the performance felt startlingly aligned with current military conflict. It was a harrowing reminder that nothing’s changed in the manner of gruesome, futile warfare and how desperately the world needs peace. It was a haunting mix, this string music that played against Lee’s account of killing a stranger in a foreign war as he remembered the anger and confusion in his eyes.

Vaughan Williams’ Greensleeves was a soothing conclusion to the show as Lee returned home to Slad; the flute and harp were particularly beautiful here. The rhythmic kinship between the readers and musicians was immensely effective, as these familiar pieces of music were granted a new kind of narrative power. It was a deceptively simple yet utterly soulful mode of performance that aptly honoured Lee’s talented writing. I’d hope that Red Sky at Sunrise would lead the way for more literature to be translated to the stage in this way. The entire audience gave rapturous applause, speaking of its poignant impact.