FringeReview UK 2017
Alan Bennett’s 1968 debut play Forty Years On is revived at Chichester Festival Theatre in Daniel Evans’ direction. Lez Brotherston’s set is deceptively simple. The Festival’s thrust stage is adorned with a central organ loft under which a grand door glowers and above which either schoolboys or Mr Chamberlain on trial pop out. Mark Henderson’s lighting proves crucial because of so many black-outs. Tom Brady’s musical arrangements and composition takes centre stage, or centre-peripheral. Till May 20th.
How revive a classic that’s about nostalgia fifty years on when we’ve grown nostalgic about the brave new world replacing it? Alan Bennett’s 1968 debut play Forty Years On is a Janus-faced cavalcade pretending it’s a school pageant. Here the school pageant almost takes over. Refracted through Bennett’s 2004 The History Boys this production and slightly revised text with a community cast of schoolboys blunts the sad edge of Bennett’s satires that much more in Daniel Evans’ direction. ‘The future comes before the past’ quips headmaster-to-be Franklin (Alan Cox) to the retiring one, Richard Wilson. Despite all dire warning at the end and a speed-read of fifty years between, the past here leaps ahead.
Lez Brotherston’s set is deceptively simple. The Festival’s thrust stage is adorned with a magnificently functioning central organ loft under which a grand door glowers and above which either schoolboys or Mr Chamberlain on trial pop out. Mark Henderson’s lighting proves crucial because of so many black-outs. Ten young actors impersonate principal boys. Tom Brady’s musical arrangements and composition takes centre stage, or centre-peripheral. Oliver Marshall and James McConville notably play violin and piano from Elgar to Ellington. An arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia’s been added, and all Bennett’s stipulated dance numbers.
For the most part Wilson’s Headmaster partly reading from a script presides in benign handover as Franklin his successor’s poised to modernize. We’re treated to two synchronized time machines. A zig-zag history from 1900 alternates with a couple Hugh and Moggie (not unlike Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West) who knit and mutter their way through the Second War in Claridge’s basement. Cox and Matron Jenny Galloway – reminiscing how war bought sexual liberation on an AA battery – take these parts with grumpy aplomb, as Danny Lee Wynter’s chaplain Tempest with his sexually interventionist discourse on the facts of life plays son Christopher. The perpetually cold Miss Nisbitt, Lucy Briers takes on Nursie; for the play’s run they sashay in and out of role.
It’s a pageant beside a pageant interrupted in rehearsal or seen as the performance itself. It intersects that point where Bennett moves from sketch-writer to dramatist, enclosing the one in the frame of the other. Wilson’s Headmaster splenetically objects to Franklin’s inclusiveness, including a sketch with Bertrand Russell and the monumentally tall Lady Ottoline Morrell in seduction mode – in reality the ever-japing Skinner and Foster (Thomas Bird, also a double-bassist and Crispin Glancy). Treasurable sound-bites emanate from him or the narrator Franklin. ‘Thirty years ago today, Tupper, the Germans marched into Poland and you’re picking your nose.’ There’s proto-Stoppardian fun too: ‘Lord, take this cup from me… thank you Lord’ as schoolboy Lord does.
Everything’s sacred, so T E Lawrence is famously guyed not least in hints of drag and ‘Clad in the magnificent robes of an Arab prince… he hoped to pass unnoticed through London. Alas, he as mistaken.’ The delicious parody of Buchan’s Hannay foiling the devilish plot to embroil Edward VIII with a dubious woman hits both targets. Yet Bennett cites the deaths of Lawrence Buchan and the rest, quoting huge chunks from Osbert Sitwell and Leonard Woolf as a magical 1914 crumps into barrages manages something else here. The cadet corps is suddenly the glorious dead. But sheer numbers on stage lit up with torches prove as affecting as Matron coming on with milk.
This production emphasizes nostalgia ahead of satire. It’s a fine unbalancing edging us back from 1968 since we’re rather more regressive than perhaps we like to admit. As the years catch up, Chamberlain arraigned by the Court of History, our trio emerging from Claridge’s, there’s less to satirize; the end relies on a sudden fast-forward montage on screens. That’s not necessary, this debut play with clocks running doesn’t need a digital alarm. The Headmaster’s long prescient valediction is broken up into schoolboy sound-bites – inclusive but less effective, and words are muffled. Bennett’s ecological predictions, and warnings of the sale of Britain (now to the US, not EEC) need to have authority deliver them. It’s clear there are challenges Evans has done his best with. This is brave, inclusive, slightly fudged, and symptomatic of our times. Forty Years On might yet transcend them, and this is a rare chance to see it.