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.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.