Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Boys of the Empire Productions
Venue: theSpace @ Surgeons Hall
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
"Angus Stewart’s cult novel of forbidden love, now on stage for the first time. Set in 1960s Oxford, it tells the story of a romance between David, a 19-year-old undergraduate, and a choirboy, Antony Sandel. The love affair is compromised when David accepts a teaching post at the choir school Sandel attends. Breaching conventions and defying the law, the two embark on a perilous journey, one filled with tenderness, courage and drama. The book has been out of print for many years because of its subject matter, yet Sandel is even more relevant and controversial today."
Glenn Chandler says he got some pretty queer looks in Oxford during the photoshoot to promote his adaptation of Angus Stewart’s cult novel Sandel. I’m a pretty modern-minded chap myself but even I might have batted an eyelid at the sight of two young actors, one very young-looking and dressed as a choirboy, being encouraged to canoodle in a punt under the direction of the legendary creator of Taggart.
Like many 19 year olds, David Rogers falls in love. Not easily but hard. Not wisely but too well. And he has a type – men a few years younger than himself (boys). When David goes up to to St. Cecilia’s, Oxford, he meets and is captivated by Antony Sandel, the precocious and pre-eminent talent of the chapel choir. Despite the Catholicly minded caution of his acerbic old school chum Bruce Lang, David and Antony embark on a courtship that will sail them into troubled and uncharted waters.
It goes without saying that the subject matter divides opinion, especially after David becomes one of Antony’s schoolmasters. Is it right for an older man to pursue a young boy? Is it right for the boy to be so eager to be pursued? Is David abusing the trust placed in him? Is Antony being abused?
The great success of Chandler’s adaptation, and of the ensemble he has gathered, is that the audience is left to answer the moral conundrums in their own time. This is a production declining to preach for or against the actions or motivations of the characters. Tom Cawte, as the male Lolita, blasts onto the stage instantly establishing Antony’s charisma and leaving him free to fine tune a bold portrait of a manipulative, lonely, pot-bound young plant hankering for the sun. Ryan Penny perfectly captures David’s self-indulgent vacillation. Penny plays up David’s own goash introspection – and if you consult the Urban Dictionary you’ll find that isn’t a misspelling.
Calum Fleming loves every minute as the éminence groseille. The key (and plot spoilering) aspects of the character are dexterously handled. Fleming endows Bruce with a comic range and moral broadside, although I’m not entirely taken with his depiction of the larger-than-life tweedy, theological type. Some of my best friends are larger-than-life tweedy, theological types.
The unseen star of the show is Will Hunter, the Set Designer and Stage Manager. Sandel is his first build and he has approached the project directly from an SM’s perspective. There is genius in the means by which David’s pedestal desk adapts into everything from a punt, to a church organ, to a hospital bed. Even so, the set changes are brisk, tightly choreographed and permit no slackening of the productions high pace or tension. From opening with Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, to the brilliant final line (the best since Some Like It Hot) there is an unbroken, cloistered innocence underlying the controversy.
Many approach the Fringe with a desire to freak out either themselves or their audiences. Chandler has avoided sensationalism, preferring sense and sensuality. To the auld Taggart line – “Thairs bin a muhrder. Whar were you?” – there is between 16:05 and 17:25 only one irreprochable alibi. “I was at the Surgeons’ Hall watching Sandel.”