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"Innocence and experience in wartime"

by May Davey for remotegoat on 04/03/11

Besides being a significant accolade it may be something of a millstone round the neck for Polka Theatre to be described as a national treasure: for more than three decades it has been developing work specifically for young audiences and has a strong reputation for the quality of its output. With that comes pressure to demonstrate a finger continuously on the pulse of what young people want to see. Though the real decision-makers here are not so much the children as the adults in their lives who pay for the seats. It seems to me that to maintain position as a national treasure Polka needs to score on both fronts and in that respect 'The Machine Gunners' is very good programming indeed.

Robert Westall's novel is set on Tyneside during the heavy wartime bombing raids of 1940-41 and reflects local people's fortitude under extreme circumstances. Chas discovers a crashed German aircraft with its machine gun - an irresistible war souvenir - still in place. He and his associates face the challenges, injustices, rivalries and loyalties that every generation must, albeit set against the very particular backdrop of the place and the time.

Ali Taylor's stage adaptation retains the novel's spirit and humour though, understandably, narrows its focus to the exploits of the children rather than the townspeople at large. With the exception of 'narrator' Chas (securely played by Michael Imerson) the cast of six play multiple roles with precision.

Also understandable, but I think less successful, is the decision to keep the action moving swiftly at the expense of allowing emotions to surface and inhabit fully the space they deserve. Director Adam Penford and his team will have debated the merits of this for sure; my own sense is that we sell young audiences short if we believe a rattling pace is necessarily the key to keeping them engaged - take children's Japanese anime, for instance. Arguably when young lives are chock-full of activity and short on space in which to notice and reflect, theatre is uniquely placed to present contextualised opportunities for doing so.

'The Machine Gunners' contains moments of real tension - revulsion, uncertainty, pain - and it seems a pity not to allow the acting to develop them into something a young audience can take away with them in addition to a thoroughly good story. As if to reinforce the point the acting was particularly strong in the stillness of a scene between Nicky, a war orphan (Chris Coxon), and Rudi, a stranded German pilot (Matthew Brown).

At the schools' performance I attended the audience (typically aged 11-12) was enthusiastic and attentive, there because the play supported an aspect of the curriculum; a good many were making their first ever theatre visit. The production has strong links with the Imperial War Museum London and, alongside an ingenious set, makes wonderful use of authentic, crackling radio and shaky film footage from Museum archives.

Very enjoyable, for kids and their adults.