David Harrower's National Theatre adaptation of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids has been around for 20 years, and the novel itself for nigh-on 65 years now. A group of children is forced to conceal its telepathic facility in a post-nuclear future in which all abnormalities of mind and body are zealously policed. Everything in this society must meet a norm for perfection, so that fear of differences – taken to be deviance – becomes rampant. In this case, the punishment for being born with an abnormality entails banishment to the rigours of the badlands, the Fringes.
As with the best sci-fi, the subject matter remains today as important as ever, not least Wyndham's rejection of the notion of the omnipotence of adults – here represented by parents and in part community elders. It's a pity, though, that Wyndham's critique of the repressive role of religious leaders has been downplayed, if not omitted (though a number of the 'perfect humans' sported crucifixes), since rabid fundamentalism and moral certainty can be a more destructive social force than any differences among us.
Creative staff at Pegasus have been planning this show for the past 10 months or so, and working with the cast for the last six of those. This relatively extended gestation period was immediately apparent as we took our first night seats, to find before us a strikingly gloomy, grey space wreathed in drifting mist, broken by strong verticals from scaffolding poles and backed by simian netting. Only strands of ivy high up broke the industrial impression. As insistent electronic sound lapped around us, milling, declamatory bodies appeared from the wings uttering - a manifesto of righteousness, was it? The content was a little hard to discern, and presaged the production's principal drawback: the weak vocal projection of a number of the players, failing to reach the fourth or fifth row back.
When I read the novel at the age of many of this cast, I recall being gripped not so much by the political and psychological ideas of the material, as by the tension of the will they/won't they escape end sequences, as the rescue of the threatened telepaths becomes a frantic race against time. To my chagrin, Harrower has excised this element entirely, leaving the teenagers in whom we are invested trudging into the badlands towards an uncertain future. This resulted in an ending so abrupt that all around me the audience was uncertain whether we had reached the interval or the conclusion of the drama.
From the cast (the programme supplied no surnames), I would especially commend Seth for his portrayal of the lead character David with clear diction and easy movement, Ella for the vigour of her Sophie, Ayana for the boldness of her speech as Rosa, and Malachi for his excellent stage presence. The actors were uniformly alert and well-drilled by director John McCraw, and for many of them this will have been their first - but surely not their last - stab at a full-scale production.