FORTY YEARS ON
The Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich
Surely a centenarian by now. The unnamed Headmaster, whose retirement in 1968 is the peg for Alan Bennett's rag-bag vaudeville history of Britain in the Twentieth Century, Forty Years On, is confined to the Albion Nursing Home, alone with a television set and an uncaring carer.
These bleak bookends to what is already a play within a play were the invention of Stephen Picton, who directed this welcome revival for the Maddermarket, and also played a brilliant Tempest, the role Bennett wrote for himself when young.
All his turns were realised with wit and panache – the Wildean Lady Dundown, Beerbohm, the Confirmation Class. John Hare, as the Headmaster, caught the frustration, the nostalgia and the rueful regret in a performance redolent of the great Gielgud, creator of the role. Though I would have enjoyed it more had he managed to stick a little closer to the text.
James McGary played Franklin, the new Head, with some nice character work in the Buchan pastiche and the basement of Claridges. Versatile support from Etta Geras's Matron [Nanny Gibbins, Primrose Hill] and Mel Sessions's Miss Nisbit, Nursie to Hugh and Moggie.
The dozen or so schoolboys were denied much of their fun [the Rugby Song, Sybilline Quarrell, the treble duets], and were often shunted off into the balconies, but did contribute some telling tableaux – the Edwardian tennis, the old Queen, and the leads at Kimber transformed to the trenches of the Somme. Lovely cameos from Oscar Schmidt-Hansen's Wigglesworth, Nathan Ross's Foster and Findlay Norton's Treadgold, with his name proudly, if anachronistically, displayed on his rugger shirt. And they were given some key passages of narrative. I was impressed with the second 'cheiromant' reader, and the first speaker in the extended Envoi, the final sequence which caught exactly Bennett's ambivalent intentions.
Elsewhere, especially at the end of the run, I might have expected a more seamless, pacier presentation. And I could be endlessly picky about detail: Lawrence lived at Clouds Hill, Connolly ran Horizon magazine, Binyon wrote “grow not old” ... Production values were generally high, though, - the uniforms, the milk bottles, the props basket - with effective choices of music [Vaughan Williams, Forget-me-not Lane], creative use of slides and shadows, and a panelled set just right for the school on the Downs, bedecked with bunting and the garlands of memory.