For his first show as Artistic Director at Chichester, Daniel Evans has chosen to revive Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, his first West End success back in 1968.
It is an impressive revival, done with loving respect for the original, but opening the piece out for the Chichester stage. The set, by Lez Brotherston no less, is dominated by a huge organ – too mighty for this modest school, perhaps – flanked by war memorial boards which double as screens for the brilliantly devised video support.
The most wonderful aspect of a largely successful revival is the chorus of schoolboys – in they troop, belting out the Old Hundredth [“Him serve with fear”, please!] to take their places for the School Play – Speak for England, Arthur. And play an essential role in the proceedings which follow: singing rugby songs, being a standard lamp, playing the Lost Generation when young. They drift back after the interval, chatting and handing round the ginger nuts. They act out the deaths of famous men and women; they become framed portraits of British Monarchs - an orange here, an arrow there.
If these young players were the most effective performers of the production, then, sadly the oldest, Richard Wilson as the retiring Headmaster of the Old School, was the least effective. He had the character to a T, but not the text. He read everything he possibly could, though even there we had stumblings and hesitations. “Slipshod,” as he might say. My favourite fluff the surreal substitution of “goldsmith” for “blacksmith”. Countless others: copula for cupola, continual for compulsory [games], accessible for acceptable. And elsewhere there were prompts and pauses which did serious harm to the flow of some scenes. Wisely perhaps, his lantern lecture on T E Lawrence was entrusted instead to his successor at the helm, Franklin, played with an easy style by Alan Cox. Jenny Galloway is Matron [playing Moggie in the wartime story, and a terrific inebriated Nanny Gibbins], Lucy Briers Miss Nisbitt. The youngest member of staff, Mr Tempest, is brilliantly done by Danny Lee Winter, playing many parts, including Max Beerbohm and the Wildean Lady Dundown, with more than a hint of Dame Maggie Smith.
Equally impressive are the young actors who play the senior boys – especially Joe Idris-Roberts as the Lectern Reader; full marks to Voice and Dialogue Coach Charmian Hoare for making them sound so authentically in period.
The original musical ideas are expanded and developed [MD Tom Brady]; some of the choruses recall the numbers that punctuate The History Boys. There are handbells for the New Year, and a cheeky tap dance - a Chichester speciality - for Little Sir Echo. "The Breed", done as a motion picture with an underscore.
The bloodied, bruised, anarchic rugger boys actually look as if they've just left the field; the ending of Act One is superbly realised, with photographs of the doomed youth of the Great War appearing on the stage right war memorial as their names are highlighted opposite, and the troops pour from the trapdoor to people the stage with the glorious dead.