Forty Years On
York Theatre Royal
Artistic Director Damian Cruden has a clear fondness for the work of Alan Bennett, having staged Habeas Corpus and Enjoy, among others, during his tenure at York Theatre Royal. His faithfulness has now extended to this production of Bennett's first stage play, originally performed in 1968.
The text itself is a somewhat flawed mixture of nostalgia and satire, at its best subtly shifting between anti-Establishment digs and a genuine wistfulness for a way of life on its way to extinction. The revue formula of Beyond the Fringe sits at times uneasily with an attempt to frame the play-within-a-play within a larger narrative, and this production at times amplifies the problems of what is a tricky, and tricksy, format - in essence a play-within-a-play-within-a-play.
The show is not, however, without its merits. The large ensemble of schoolboys cast from local young actors and the theatre's resident Belt Up company provides a suitably fidgety and fun chorus. The actors of this season's professional ensemble also throw themselves into the production with gusto, and particular praise must be given to Robert Pickavance's turn as the Headmaster. His opening oration is pitch-perfect, and his glowering desperation as proceedings take a turn for the sordid is glorious. Jonathan Race also shines again as younger master Tempest.
Martin Barrass as the play's writer-director Franklin has some very strong moments including what sounded to these ears like a fine impression of several Goon Show characters. And there are nice touches in the direction of the younger ensemble, with Dominic Allen's swotty Lectern Reader extemporising verbosely, and elsewhere urgently trying to show off his knowledge in the classroom.
Christopher Madin's music suits the turgidly rousing qualities of Church of England hymns and dated school anthems to a tee, and is executed with expert amateurishness by on-stage organist David Westbrook. The lighting, designed by Richard G Jones, does well to evoke the limited working light of a large school hall while at times shifting to support the play's more lyrical turns.
On the whole though, this setting, though showcasing another attractive design by Dawn Allsopp, obstructs rather than aids the text; the main question must be whether this is the right choice of play for the Theatre Royal's converted in-the-round season. While the two banks of seating have worked well for previous shows such as The Crucible and Peter Pan, they do not suit a play which, in a proscenium configuration, would incorporate the audience more naturally in its illusion of a school speech day. It also means that moments of visual humour often require triple- rather than double-takes, which slows the pace and creates occasional difficulties for the performers.
In essence, though, this is a play with a difficult structure and a historical setting which is itself now removed from many people's living memories. The production at times seems to lose track of the play-within-a-play structure, and it is difficult to disentangle the layers of irony and knowingness at work in the performance put on by the schoolmasters. The now-period setting of the late sixties is itself a museum piece, and the original production's nostalgia for recent history can no longer be elicited by many of the play's references.
This is not to say that longing for a time slightly beyond one's own experience does not provide consolations, and there are towering moments of writing - among the most evocative Bennett has ever created - which are adeptly delivered by the cast. Bennett gives the Headmaster a speech (or rather, has Franklin's script give the Headmaster the speech) which recognises the indulgences and joys of wistful reminiscence at the heart of the play: "If I felt a shadow come across the moment, it was only because, young, rich, and as I see now, happy, I could afford melancholy."
Reviewer: Mark Smith