Red Sky at Sunrise: Laurie Lee in Words and Music

Red Sky Review – Malvern Theatre

Laurie Lee... child was father to the man

REVIEW: Red Sky at Sunrise – Malvern Theatres (Saturday, February 10, one night only).

The England of Laurie Lee has now all but vanished which made this evocative tribute in words and music all the more moving and enjoyable.

Actors Anton Lesser and Charlie Hamblett took us gently by the hand and led us down a Gloucestershire country lane to the village of Slad, the sleepy Cotswold community in which the child was clearly the father to the man.

Unlike many, if not most of his fellow villagers, Lee left his native turf to find a fortune of sorts in the civil war-torn Spain of the 1930s.

However, in many ways, the writer never spiritually left. Indeed, he remains there to this day, resting for eternity in that hillside graveyard just across the road from the Woolpack pub, the favoured watering hole where he could still be found right up until his final days.

Lesser and Hamblett tell the story in a way that would surely have met with the approval of the great man. They deliver the narrative with great feeling and sensitivity, Lee’s distinctively lyrical style leaping from the pages as the two men effortlessly ride with the current of the writer’s thought streams.

The words are complemented in perfect counterpoint by whole host of composers, ranging from the achingly pastoral work of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, before crossing the Bay of Biscay where a hotter tempo burns brightly, courtesy of guitar pieces by Albeniz, Turina and De Falla.

The Orchestra of the Swan’s lilting and delicately delivered response to Lee’s prose poetry never fails to capture every sunny moment, whether in rural Gloucestershire, or in the baked plains of southern Spain.

Shut your eyes and you’re there in an instant, such as when the action moves to the Iberian Peninsular with his book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.

Here we find him in the white-hot crucible of the civil war, where we learn that in one nameless encounter, he kills a man with his rifle bayonet, the eyes of the dying adversary, we are told, being ‘full of anger’.

In recent times, doubt has been cast on the writer’s involvement in the war. Be that as it may, all his recollections, including a temporary imprisonment in a hole in the ground, have a stark ring of truth about them.

Lee is perhaps best known for his confessional work Cider with Rosie, a coming-of-age tale set in some eternal mowing meadow which one feels Lee never really wanted to leave.

But just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, neither does a single kiss stolen from underneath the hay wagon make for a long-lived romance. Yet those who drink from the cup of first love will never forget, and so it was with Lee.

That Tudor-era staple Greensleeves was fittingly chosen for the musical finale, this being entirely appropriate for a man whose greatest love was perhaps for the fields, woods and babbling brooks of an English rural childhood.

And like the biblical tale of the Prodigal Son, which he undoubtedly learnt about at his village primary school, Lee was indeed destined to return with gold in great store, in the form of his immortal words.

Brought to Malvern direct from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, this production was a thoroughly enjoyable journey through the back pages of one of Britain’s best-loved writers.


Review by John Phillpott

Anton Lesser

Anton Lesser photographed by Lucy Barriball

Mark Ashford

Mark Ashford photographed by Lucy Barriball

Charlie Hamblett by Lucy Barriball

Charlie Hamblett photographed by Lucy Barriball