Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Daniel Evans
Reviewer: Simon Topping
This is Daniel Evans’ first outing for Chichester Festival theatre as their new artistic director and in his selection of Alan Bennett’s first foray into full-length playwriting, Forty Years On, the audience are treated to an excellent selection of amusing and poignant set pieces that capture the past.
It is 1968 and the Headmaster (Richard Wilson) is retiring from Albion House. The boys and staff of the crumbling public school are putting on a revue spanning his career; a collection of sketches from the preceding decades, taking in the two world wars, in an irreverent and mischievous way which the Headmaster endeavours to curtail.
The set is beautifully designed by Lez Botherston and wows with a huge church organ set centre stage. Period school seating, lamps, radios and projectors transport the audience to within the walls of the tired old building.
Wilson is fabulously cast as the cantankerous old headmaster and shows off his sublime comic timing throughout the play, especially when leading the boys in prayer. Although sometimes stumbling for his lines and often reading from script this does not detract but enhances the muddled persona of the cranky old character he is playing.
Wilson is surrounded by a funny and capable cast. Danny Lee Wynter shines as Tempest particularly when performing as a Dowager Grantham type character in the play within the play and also when giving a lecture about how fat King Edward VII was. Jenny Galloway does a hilarious turn as a fabulous drunken nanny in one scene and Lucy Briers is a delight as Miss Nisbitt. It is a credit to Bennett’s writing that the majority of the funniest lines come from the female roles. There is some excellent physical comedy from James McConville who plays Tupper and a spell binding tap dance from Michael Lin.
The 52 young local performers enrolled as the school boys are put to good use throughout, often ingeniously -the boy forced to play a lampstand and for large swathes of the performance raises a particular chuckle. There are several funny moments when the boys take centre stage including an angelical ecclesiastical singing piece with a dirty end, showing traits of the school boy humour Bennett often produced in Beyond the Fringe. The group movement from the boys adds great energy to the piece and is excellently choreographed by Naomi Said.
Almost 50 years since it was first produced, 40 Years On leaves a twenty-first-century audience pondering on its meaning. Never quite hanging together as a whole, it feels firmly rooted as a period piece. The sum of its parts are greater than the whole, but what marvellous parts it has.
Runs until 20 May 2017| Image: Johan Persson