Book: Thomas Hughes
Adaptor/Director: Phil Willmott
A moving and highly original take on a school novel classic puts the Union Theatre top of the class once again when it comes to presenting small scale drama with big ambitions.
Phil Willmott’s version of Tom Brown’s School Days is pleasing enough in its own right, but stands out all the more for being part of an Essential Classics season focussing on the 75th anniversary of V.E. Day, which will also see productions of Lionel Bart’s Blitz! and Noel Coward’s rarely seen Peace In Our Time.
This inventive reappraisal of the Thomas Hughes 1857 book updates the action to 1941, shortly after the start of World War Two, where pupils are not only being brought up to be a new generation of leaders, but are also among a group of young men who within a couple of years will be sent to fight in a bloody conflict.
Careful and thoughtful direction and adaptation by this most versatile and intelligent of writer/directors, plus first rate performances from a largely young cast, many of whom are fresh out of drama training, make this production a spirited story that resonates through the years.
The only vestige of Hughes’ original Evangelical Christian moralising is the singing of school hymns which, alongside a few popular songs of the time, provide the soundtrack to this production. While the Head is anxious to rid Rugby School of liars and is keen to produce “honest God-fearing future leaders of society” the emphasis is on an outdated system based on privilege and class.
In addition to exploring how a public school provided the training ground for a generation of young upper class men destined to lead armed forces to victory in wartime, this production also dares to hint that little has changed in a society where people voted in the recent General Election to be governed by privileged upper class leaders with a similar public school background. The singing of When a Knight Won His Spurs is as much an ironic reference to schoolboys being prepared for warfare as it is a subtle comment on an honours system in which the perceived rewarding of upper class politicians for public service is rife.
In the title role, Hudson Brown delivers a warm and sympathetic performance as the mid-term arrival at Rugby. As in the book, his Tom is generous, dependable though occasionally reckless and easy to befriend and he and Sam James Page as East make much of their common sense of growth, companionship and worldly learning as they pass through academic and sporting life and face up to bullies.
In the light of what this production is trying to do the figure of Dr Arnold (James Horne) is interesting. Brought out of retirement to be Headmaster because of staff engaged in the war, his reforms include the severe punishment of liars and a wish to rid the school of bullying and outdated traditions with the aim of dev eloping young men of conviction and a new generation of leaders free to pursue their own potential.
Yet his revolutionary methods are not universally popular. One senior staff member reminds him that the institution consists of “not soldiers but schoolboys” while the school cook reprimands him for “raising a generation of toffs who can be good leaders.”
Horne captures perfectly the gentle but firm character with avuncular concern for the pupils yet passionate for reform in a tired system and it is understandable why he is so popular and respected by the boys.
He is matched well by Toby Wynn-Davies as Grimstead, the tough Latin Master with a sense of academic duty whose asthma prevented him from enlisting and who had hoped to be appointed as Headmaster, and by Ralph Warman (who also serves as musical director and arranger) as Stebbins, the nervous music teacher haunted by ghosts and memories of the First World War.
Much of the gentle humour in the play is provided by the single female in the cast, Ursula Mohan, who plays Sally, here transformed from the book’s shop owner to school cook. Outspoken and always able to find special treats for the boys by nefarious means, Mohan finds the comedy in the one working class character, providing a welcome balance to the rest and with a backbone of steel and a heart of gold.
Bullying as much as sporting prowess and institutional reforms is at the heart of the story, so the strong performances of Alex McKeon as notorious sixth former Flashman and Hugh Tappin and Jack Donald as his unpleasant sidekicks are key to the dramatic tension. We see the iron grip they have on the younger boys and there are instances of their cruelty (including a fight well-choreographed by Stephen Louis and the infamous “roasting” of Tom before an open fire), though there’s a nice touch when Flashman is sent down and packs away a teddy bear in his suitcase, showing him to be as vulnerable as the rest.
In top form are Joseph O’Gorman, Jacob Seelochan, Oliver Humphries (brilliant as Mopes, who wants to fight against capitalism and “flirts with pacifism”) and Joe Goodhead who play Tom’s chums and Mikko Juan as a serious head boy held in high regard thanks to his principles and fairness.
Reuben Speed’s multi-functional set looks every inch the public school, with Ben Bull’s subtle lighting allowing different parts to serve easily as staff room, classroom, dorm and more, with Penn O’Gara’s costume design accurately depicting school and military uniforms and academic gear perfectly in period.
Even if one dismisses the pointed references to contemporary politics and the class system, this exciting version of Tom Brown’s School Days is a lot more than a nostalgia trip and provides its own lessons to be learned and examined.
Runs until 2 February 2020