The elephant in the room in this production of Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On is this. The role of the Headmaster is played by Richard Wilson, who, while very convincing in the role, spends a lot of time reading his lines from some not very concealed notes. It does not happen with each and every scene, but it happens often enough that it is difficult not to notice, especially when he makes genuine efforts not to refer to his notes but finds himself stumbling over the script, such that fleeting glances are necessary to avoid unnecessary delay. Wilson is now 80, and has done well to be on stage at all having suffered a heart attack last summer. But this is the Chichester Festival Theatre, and there could have been any number of older actors, not least Alan Bennett himself, who could have taken on the role.
I do not and cannot lay any blame at Wilson – after all, he did not cast himself. In some respects it perhaps helps an audience to appreciate just that little bit more how much toil and effort goes into making a show work. And there was no possibility, done this way, of a reprise of Sir Lenny Henry’s press night performance in Educating Rita at Chichester in 2015, where, having dried up, he had to announce, “I’ve completely gone,” and left the stage for a moment. I’m not sure what to make of this reading out loud thing: it happens, of course, but usually when an under-rehearsed (or even completely unrehearsed) understudy goes on at a moment’s notice.
With 52 members of a ‘Community Ensemble’ supporting a 14-strong cast, some of the musical numbers sound glorious, and oftentimes congregational. The melodies may be the same but sometimes the words are very different to what would be found in ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’. I note that some of the verses have been dispensed with, making a couple of the musical numbers very short indeed: somewhat crude as they are, the omitted verses may well work in a London production, where audiences like their shows edgier, but outside the capital, appropriate caution has been taken. Here in Chichester the audience at the performance I attended seemed to approve of the Headmaster’s moral admonitions. When Wilson’s Headmaster becomes indignant, he’s basically Victor Meldrew in a headmaster’s gown and mortar board cap. It is glorious.
It is a very busy production, and comes close to being a tad too cluttered on occasion, with the 52 boys darting around the massive Festival Theatre stage to change places and set up the next scene. Set in 1968 in a public school called Albion House, the end of term is marked by a performance of a school play. So there’s a play within a play, and the main characters themselves assume characters, though as these other characters are not listed in the show’s programme, I will keep faith with the production’s creative teams and not give anything away in that regard either.
The ending, frankly, is bizarre and disappointing. Had it ended when it did, with the end of the school year at Albion House, it would have been fine. But, according to a breakneck-paced video montage at the end, Forty Years On is all about the United Kingdom’s ongoing negotiations to leave the European Union, commonly known as ‘Brexit’. This is wrong: this is a revival of a play written in 1968! Crowbarring Brexit into this play is not only unnecessary, but illogical, irrespective of one’s views on the matter.
Anyway, the script is laced with punchlines, some of which still have significant impact decades later. A student with the surname of Lord is asked to remove the Headmaster’s empty coffee mug from the stage, thus furnishing the audience with, “Take this cup from me, Lord.” You get the idea. A full-sized church (well, school chapel) organ on stage was, as far as I could tell, actually in working order. Crabtree (Michael Lin) gives a decent solo dance, cheered on by an impressive ensemble, who themselves sing out and move about with heart and enthusiasm. A worthy if imperfect revival.
This is one of those reviews I never intended to write, but am doing so purely for my own personal benefit as a matter of historical record. By the time I got round to seeing Honk!, a number of people in the audience for the final matinee performance of this Union Theatre production had come back for seconds (as it were), and as I pointed out on Twitter (that bastion of instant, pithy ‘exit poll’ opinions), my only real regret is that I hadn’t been able to see this show a little earlier. For although I am singing its praises at this point, its run has now come to an end, and its cast and creatives have already partied and parted.
There are several important messages imparted – without being preachy or overbearing – during the course of the show, the most salient being to ensure due diligence is carried out before proceeding down a path with the unfamiliar. Ugly (Liam Vincent-Kilbride, still not out of drama school, enrolled at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) goes off with Cat (Sam Sugarman), enticed by his lure but without repercussions. This reimagining of The Ugly Duckling story, made famous by Hans Christian Andersen, resonates with Andy Room, this production’s director. In a note in the show’s programme, he goes out of his way to deride Brexit and Trump (funny how those things are being blamed for everything from red traffic lights to the weather). They have, apparently, given rise to “cruel and frequently violent sentiments”. Personally, I’m quite sure xenophobia pre-dates Brexit and Trump – examples go as far back as Ancient Greece and the Old Testament – but try telling Remoaners like Room that, and see how ironically cruel and violent the response is.
Anyway, enough about that. It’s a very silly show, but not in an insufferable way. Perhaps the presence of so many attentive children helped to put me in the right sort of mood to enjoy the show for what it is. At the performance I attended, only one child started calling out, and thanks to some responsible parenting (hurrah!) the disturbance was short-lived. There are plenty of puns for both young and young at heart to enjoy, and for those who like seeing performers as musicians at the same time, this was a production that provided that in spades. But as with the 2008 Watermill Theatre production of Sunset Boulevard, there’s a moment when a double bass is carried around the stage, which frankly looked awkward.
I was thrilled to discover that a production at the Union Theatre has finally sorted out the problems musicals have had there with acoustics. So many previous productions there have been marred by not being able to hear vocals properly, even when the band plays with subtlety. It’s still not perfect in this production, but it’s the best sound balance I’ve seen yet from a musical at the Union. Ellie Nunn’s Ida stole the show for me as Ugly’s mother, going out in search for him as though this were a reimagining of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. But, in a phrase that seems to be doing the rounds recently, a star is born (or should that be ‘hatched’?) in Vincent-Kilbride, a most suitable cast leader, as committed to the ensemble as he is to ensuring his own assured triple threat skills shine through.
With commendable staging, this is not a wild goose chase (whatever the lyrics may have suggested) but rather, it holds its head up high, unashamedly portraying the joy of motherhood, warts and all, and rightly asserting it takes all sorts to make the world what it is.
Yes, we all know the tools and special effects available to filmmakers these days are superior to the ones available one generation ago, let alone two. But did Their Finest really have to make light of that, with deliberately lame cinematography to underline the distinct lack of high definition video during the Second World War? It was, at least, a source of humour, at least for a decent portion of the unassuming audience at the particular screening I attended, as was the equally deliberating bad acting of Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), an armed forces man with no previous acting credits. This is, in effect, celebrity casting, 1940s Ministry of Information style.
What we have is a movie about a movie, albeit a fictional one. The customary note came up towards the end of the credits about all events (emphasis mine) as well as people and places to be fictional, and any correlation to the real world is merely coincidental. Goodness me. World War Two was a piece of fiction?! The movie in question was purposefully commissioned as propaganda, to boost the morale of the general population even as the Blitz was going on. Matters are made more complicated by the sudden deaths of certain key figures in the filmmaking process, mostly (that is, not universally) thanks to the Luftwaffe.
Just as it was decided by the filmmakers of what I will call Project Propaganda that its ‘hero’, Johnnie (Hubert Burton), must survive to the end, so the filmmakers of Their Finest saw to it that Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) survives against highly improbable odds. She just happens to have lost her temper at a Ministry of Information figure and worked through the night, so her house gets bombed while she is at the office. She also survives another direct hit, apparently in broad daylight. So it’s her love interest, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) who doesn’t make it to the end credits.
There’s some stuff about (lack of) equal pay, a topic Arterton has covered before, taking on the lead role of Rita O’Grady in the stage version of Made in Dagenham. And there are bits about how all the men (yep, every single one, allegedly) are terrified that women who have stepped up to the plate during the war effort won’t be put back in their boxes, whatever that means.
How interesting, then, given the strong feminist perspective, that Bill Nighy’s character, the slightly absurdly named Ambrose Hilliard (presumably a stage name), the epitome of male pomp and ceremony, is the one to raise the most laughs. Hilliard’s ‘Uncle Frank’ is the main supporting role in Project Propaganda, and the leads are taken by men; ‘Johnnie’, or Wyndham Best as the character playing the hero is called (this is as confusing as it comes across), and Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy). Does the film (not so much the film about the film, but the film itself) shoot (as it were) itself in the foot?
A war film whose central character triumphs over adversity? This has been done before. Bleurgh.
An office discussion in the day job led me to see this show in the first place, partly because someone is a fan of Damian Lewis, who plays Martin, marking his 50th birthday – or, rather – having it marked, in the bizarrely named The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? And partly because someone else was repulsed by a synopsis of the play, even if she only got as far as this: a man falls in love with a goat. Given that she did not wish to know any further details, she is unaware that he even has relations with it, and [SPOILER ALERT] his wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) finds out about it. The show ends with Stevie dragging the corpse of Sylvia (the said goat) into their house, thus reasserting her (Stevie’s) previous position as Martin’s sole lover. Martin is beside himself at the death of his livestock mistress.
It is, in essence, a comedy, and I didn’t for a moment feel guilty about laughing out loud even when the subject matter was almost irredeemably dark. On one level, what is the difference between this and any other love triangle in which stag shagging two hens separately gets found out? The absurdity in buggery with an animal is the source of much of the play’s hilarity. The implausible situation is created by Brechtian ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ (in its original German), or ‘distancing effect’ – the audience knows this is not real, and is never drawn into believing any of this is real or an effort to portray reality. Having established this deliberate device to keep the audience aware that it is watching a play, and not getting lost in the moment, or anything of the sort, the audience is thus free to chortle, or not, however ridiculous and catastrophic things get in terms of the storyline, and, in this instance, the props, most of which get smashed as Stevie’s anger and frustration boils over.
If there’s a deeper meaning to be found, it’s elsewhere in Theatreland. Dramaturgically, this is ultimately straightforward. Man fucks goat. Man confesses to friend Ross (Jason Hughes) and Ross can’t help but tell Stevie because he is concerned for the welfare of his friend. There’s a row. Stevie wins by murdering the goat. The end. But there’s a subplot, which I thought was a tad underdeveloped, involving Martin and Stevie’s son Billy (Archie Madekwe), who is naturally incredulous that his own father would be having relations with an animal, but realises apart from this one, albeit significant, moral failing, Martin has been a good father. (Or is he? He’s in love with a goat and named his son Billy!)
There are a lot of grammatical and vocabulary corrections along the way, which when I read the script, came across as tedious and pedantic. When three of the four characters are doing it, there isn’t much to distinguish from one another, though I take the point that they are of the same family. Acted as well as they are here, however, the linguistic rectifications are, on the whole, amusing – not every interruption is well received by the audience.
“You have broken me and I will break you,” Stevie emphatically declares, a promise she makes true to Martin in an intense, no interval, equally appalling and enthralling play.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.