Glen Chandler, based on the novel by Angus Stewart
Boys of the Empire
Above the Stag Theatre
Angus Stewart’s novel, on which this play is based, is about the relationship between an Oxford University student and boy in the choir school linked to his college.
It was published in 1968, more than a decade after the Wolfenden Report and a year after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexual behaviour for those aged 21 but it is set in 1966 and anyway the lad is only 14 when they first meet, 16 when their relationship becomes known so if actually sexual it would (and still would) be criminal.
Fifty years ago, concern was much more about homosexuality in general, not our contemporary obsession with paedophilia, about the need for love and to be the object of affection rather than about the crossing of age barriers.
Constantly exposed to the sexual slant given to almost everything to date in media images and news, perhaps young people grow up much more aware of legal parameters, but half a century or more ago a lad grew into pubescence being told all sex was taboo yet knowing that, like him, those around him were still eager to experiment.
So many youngsters, girls and boys, develop a “pash” for a teacher, prefect or someone else whom they admire that it is hardly surprising if sometimes it goes further. Here, choirboy Antony Sandel has seen student David Rogers from afar and sets his cap at him. David is somewhat vulnerable: he is still smarting from the lack of response to a deep affection he had felt for a younger boy at boarding school.
Sandel opens in fact at that school, where David and his best friend Bruce Lang are waiting to go up to university. They think they are very grown up, sherry-quaffing sixth-formers, and their badinage suggests the (homo)sexual undercurrents associated with such institutions and the tart remarks that Calum Fleming’s Bruce makes so archly are clearly covering feelings that Joseph Lindoe’s David has not recognised, he is so caught up in his own romantic leanings.
Up at Oxford, that situation continues, unacknowledged, and perhaps it is not surprising that David responds to the flattering attentions of young Sandel who pretty well throws himself at him.
Ashley Cousins’s Sandel is clever and vivacious, fits well in the role of young boy with older mentor but he is so insufferably vain, selfishly wheedling presents and demanding attention that you can’t help but wonder why David puts up with him. He’s not even particularly good-looking, despite his own self-image, but David indulges him as if he were a younger brother and indeed they pass themselves off as half-siblings to publicly explain their closeness.
Compared to Bruce’s outrageous demeanour, David is all gentle propriety—but that’s not what Sandel is after, only Bruce’s sudden appearance disrupts his attempt to take things further. Is that spontaneous or planned? Either way Sandel has no concept of the consequences of discovery.
This is a story that skates on thin ice but contrives a way out of disaster. It is difficult to believe that someone would let themselves so readily respond to seduction such as Sandel’s had one not seen it happen so often in real life and Cousins here gives the boy an innocence that suggests his action is instinctive rather than contrived.
Glen Chandler never allows his production to become sentimental. It has a hard-edged sensibility enlivened with humour, While David Shields’s design of tilted gothic pinnacle windows and linenfold panelled library and furniture covered in music staves is symbolic, the playing is always in the moment.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton