Friday, 05 May 2017

Forty years on

Richard Wilson experiences teething problems as the curmudgeonly headmaster in this public school comedy

Written by Ian Shuttleworth

If you were casting the role of the spiky, irascible headmaster of a public school, about to retire, watching and even acting in a sort of revue of the 20th century and interrupting it to cut scenes he disapproved of… could you imagine a more ideal casting than Richard Wilson? That’s what director Daniel Evans has done for his 49-years-on revival of Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, where evans is the new hand on the artistic reins. But, sad and surprising to say, this casting hasn’t worked out – so far, at any rate.ian

Wilson is a pro from his balding, shaven head to his still-nimble-at-80 toes, and I have no doubt that the rest of his lines will embed themselves quick- smart. As of opening night, however, he was noticeably stealing frequent surreptitious glances at copies of the script, disguised as the order of service or the headmaster’s pages in the show (yes, tricksy!), and it just lets all that delicious Wilsonian steam dissipate. You can feel an explosion building, then… glance… and it just goes flump. So if you’re thinking of going to see it, give it a while.

Because it’s worth the wait. Evans is a canny director pandering just enough to the more hidebound elements of the Chichester audience so that he can take them on the interesting the adventures he wants. Here, he punctuates the action with a Flying Pickets-style a capella rendition of I Vow To Thee, My Country, a school-choir-and-solo- tap-dancer version of the 1930s novelty number little Sir Echo, and several interruptions by the school rugger team. He and musical director tom Brady also have some 50 members from Chichester’s youth theatre to fill out the action and the songs.

As the headmaster-designate, director and star of the revue, Alan Cox makes full use of his skill at remaining deadpan while signalling to us that he knows this is pretty ridiculous. Jenny Galloway as Matron has a couple of nicely understated scenes, and Danny Lee Wynter gets to run the gamut from earnest and subdued to, almost literally, Lady Bracknell on speed.

Alan Bennett always lampoons Englishness while also embracing it, and this is where he established the formula: the very name Albion House makes clear that the school is an emblem of the country. When it premiered in 1968, I suspect this meant pricking national pride about the still relatively recent Second World War; in Brexit Britain 2017, it may feel more like reinflating those myths for us to take refuge in. Either way, it’s a deft balancing act.

Until 20 May at Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester: 01243-781312, 

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