Opening the inaugural season of Daniel Evans’ Chichester Festival Theatre is a production of Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, a play which is ambitious, slippery, nostalgic and satirical. It’s funny too. And, as the country marches inexorably to the June 8 election, it is an arresting reminder that the past can’t be the future, no matter how much one might want it to be.
…things were never the same last time. So it will be even less the same this time. It won’t be the same world.
When Daniel Evans programmed Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On as the opening gambit in his term as Artistic Director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, he may have known that the UK had voted to leave the EU but he could not have known that a general election would be called for June 8. Evans’ production, now playing on the main stage at Chichester, will be finished before the polling booths open, but it serves as a timely reminder of what is at stake in the election.
Bennett’s play is set in 1968 at a public school where the Headmaster is about to retire. His successor, Franklin, has been chosen by the School Governors, and once the baton changes, the school will never be the same again. The Headmaster may rightly be regarded as “old school” but he is not a capital C conservative. He has some liberal blood coursing through his veins, and tough though he may be on matters such as propriety, tradition, respect for institutions, and patriotism, he is no vicious authoritarian tyrant.
Franklin, on the other hand, seems a somewhat subversive liberal, intent on outlawing capital punishment for recalcitrant schoolboys and other such lax notions of academia. He has been in charge of devising the school play which the boys will perform at the Headmaster’s final school assembly, in front of their fellows, parents and school guests.
The school play that Franklin devises, with assistance from the aptly named Tempest, another master at the school, is Speak For England, Arthur, little more than a series of vaudeville-type sketches which dart backwards and forwards across the years between the First and Second World Wars and which pokes fun at many things, many people, complete with songs, a running, melancholy, narrative about a well off couple (Hugh and Moggie) and potshots at Oscar Wilde, Lawrence of Arabia and Bertrand Russell to name but some.
Transition is a key motif throughout – the transition from Headmaster to Franklin, from peace to war, from firmly repressed and controlled environs to more free thinking and tolerant times. The school stands in for England itself – there is a nice riff on John of Gaunt’s Richard II “sceptred isle” speech at one point – and you have adults who either live in the past or want to, and others who want to forge a brave new world. And young boys, waiting to be educated, to be taught what to think.
And you have the brutal reality of sport trumping culture – twice – when the rowdy winning rugby players return to the school victorious and want to celebrate in their loud, brash way, oblivious to the fact that the play is being presented to the world on the occasion of the Headmaster’s last day. But there are no recriminations – even the fastidious Headmaster embraces their victory and lets them celebrate. What’s a bit of vulgar boisterousness from sport stars? And why should it be a problem if it pisses on culture?
Bennett weaves quite a lot into this particular tapestry and, rightly, he is not judgmental about most of it. Inconsistent ideas jostle with multiple characters to get laughs, make a point, add texture. He reflects the changes that were happening in England in 1968 – which to a certain extent are happening now, just in the reverse direction. His use of language is peerless, but these days not everyone has a classical education sound enough to get all of the references, to even note that there are clever points being made about events or people. In that way, Forty Years On has much to say about the decline in academic standards since 1968 and the “reap as ye shall sow” consequences that shattered the UK in the referendum in 2016.
But, for all that it covers big themes, Forty Years On strikes one as a fairly intimate piece. Evans has none of that here though, recruiting some 50 odd lads from the local community to bolster the ranks of the schoolboys present for the Headmaster’s last assembly. This immediately makes everything bigger and bolder, and permits some very clever stage moments as well as excellent group harmonies.
But it also detracts from the role the eight actors who play the key boys play. There are so many boys on stage at most times, that focus on individuals is hard to achieve. And the eight main actors are all excellent, with especially good work from Joe Idris-Roberts (a Lectern Reader with an excellent voice, a compelling sensibility), Michael Lin (a superb dancer) and James McConville (equally good in drag and on the organ). How much better they might have been had they been the only schoolboys we will never know – but it seems likely they would have risen to the occasion.
Although the production is set in 1968, some of the musical choices and methods of staging do not suit that period. This makes it somewhat difficult to work out what is happening – is this a period production? Is it a modern production of a period piece? Is it some form of amalgamation? It is hard to know if even Evans knows the answer to these questions, because, like Bennett’s writing, individual parts are more fluid than the whole suggests.
Does it matter? Perhaps not. Tom Brady’s musical direction is excellent throughout and even the oddest musical choices are nicely done. Naomi Said provides efficient and sometimes superb movement – while Lin’s solo tap routine may not fit the period it is nevertheless breath-taking. There is a vital energy, spurred on, no doubt, by Evans’ vision, which keeps proceedings bubbling along.
Perhaps the point is that Evans is making his Almost Fifty Years On version of Bennett’s Forty Years On speak to issues between 1968 and 2018? Certainly the final slide show does that, but so too do the anachronistic methods of performance – he almost says: laugh at what was, but remember you are also laughing at was is and what is to come. Whatever the truth of that, one thing is clear: Chichester under Evans is going to be a very different proposition to Chichester under Jonathan Church.
The draw card for this production is Richard Wilson, who tackles, but misses, the role of the Headmaster. Wilson is a formidable force on stage and when he is command of what he is saying, he is a joy to watch and behold. He snarls at those who cross him with a vitriol that is endearing, a fresh lucid angst that is joyful to savour. But, alas, too often his memory fails him. Long passages are read, albeit read very well. No ear pieces come to Wilson’s aid. Sadly.
The humour in the Headmaster requires sudden explosions, quick movement from long eloquent speech to acerbic side-line as some misdeed or another is detected at long range and a pupil or master is swotted like a fly. There is a clear rhythm in the writing and it requires deft animation. The heights can’t be achieved when memory lapses or stutterings and stumblings explode like land mines on a leafy path.
Everything stops when Wilson fumbles a line. Actors must keep maintaining the nose-picking or hair stroking that is meant to be the subject of ire; poses have to be maintained evenly as the victim or onlooker waits for the cue to come; breaths have to be held, as natural empathy for a human in peril breaks the fourth wall and the mood, the moment. Evans should have found a way to ease this path for Wilson. For when he is energetically in control, he is marvellous. Alas, he is not that often enough.
Apart from the eight boys, the best of whom, Idris-Roberts, brings true grace to the work, the most sublime performances here come from Jenny Galloway and Lucy Briers. Galloway is superb as Matron, a fierce but adored member of faculty, a woman who can love and administer castor oil with equal wholeheartedness. Dry and worn, Galloway’s Matron often provides the most heartfelt and touching moments.
In the play-within-a-play, Matron assumes the role of Moggie and in that aspect Galloway’s light shines brightest. A wistful passage about the time when fat legs did not mean isolation is tender and insightful in Galloway’s assured delivery. Briers provides an excellent contrast to Galloway as the prim, repressed Miss Nisbitt, a female master held in low regard by the sexist pupils. Briers makes her a real woman not a caricature, which permits a greater freedom for the Nanny she portrays in the play-within-a-play, a figure of rumpled pomposity regardless of being caught in a gas mask or swathed in bandages.
Both women show up their male counterparts in the school. Alan Cox is a dull Franklin, with no real sense of how he feels about the Headmaster every even hinted at. Nor is there any real idea given about how Franklin feels about the boys, teaching, the school or England itself. If he is going to be a marked change from Wilson’s Headmaster, it is not at all clear how. Or why.
If there was a prize for a spot-on Maggie Smith impersonation, Danny Lee Wynter would be a certainty. But in other respects his turn as Tempest flaps around as much as a school flag would on a windy afternoon. There is a particularly awful scene that seems to suggest paedophilia is okay in a school environment (a theme to which Bennett would return in The History Boys); it gained only mute approval in the performance I saw, but there were many startled faces. It’s the playing of the scene which strikes the wrong chord. For Evans and Wynter there seems no distinction between camp and gay, between chuckle and chill. Tempest here is a missed opportunity, not entirely because of Wynter’s ability.
Still, there is much to admire about Forty Years On. It certainly puts a stake in the ground – Chichester under Evans looks like a great place to celebrate female actors, as well as a place where bold risks can and will be taken.
Bravo to that.