‘Alan Bennett’ and ‘school’ are likely to be two topics that crop up in close proximity to one another, given the phenomenal and continuing success of his 2004 play about education, The History Boys. However, it was far from his first crack at the subject, which can instead be traced back as far as his earliest play, 1968’s Forty Years On, which is now being revived by Daniel Evans in his inaugural season at Chichester Festival Theatre. With a cast of over 50 boys, both professional and local, and a cast-iron star in Richard Wilson in the lead role of the Headmaster, it promises to be a big hit. But what of the quality?
Bennett’s play doesn’t have the relatively tight structure of The History Boys, being instead a series of revue-like sketches all centred around the last day of term at Albion House. The headmaster has announced his retirement, and so in his honour a school play is being staged, consisting of various incidents in the history of Britain over the previous years. Some of these are funny, not least an uproarious pair of sketches involving an Oscar Wilde pastiche and TE Lawrence; others, especially those dealing with the two world wars, are altogether more poignant. As the play goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Albion House itself is a metaphor for England, in all its messy, uncertain complexity, and that Bennett’s satirical thrust is aimed at our vision of a perfect bygone era that never existed.
Line by line, Bennett’s sharp wit and intelligence combine to offer a hugely enjoyable couple of hours at the theatre, and this represents a highly impressive first Chichester production by the excellent Evans, who worked similar wonders at Sheffield. Wilson combines comic doddering with deep poignancy as the headmaster, and is given excellent support by Alan Cox and Danny Lee Wynter, essaying different shades of flamboyance as schoolmasters, to say nothing of the hilarious Jenny Galloway as the archetypal school matron; imagine Hattie Jacques with a brilliantly cutting wit, and you’re just about there.
It’s beautifully designed by Lez Brotherson, who gives the theatre the feel of a slightly dilapidated minor public school, and Tom Brady’s near-ubiquitous musical arrangements are alternately clever, funny and moving. There is nothing wrong with anything here, save, it must be said, the play. The absence of a central narrative means that one feels that one might dip in and out of the evening rather as if one was watching a series of interrelated but ultimately distinct pieces, and this absence of cohesion does mean that the big laughs land, but there are occasional longeurs between them as one waits for the next glorious double entendre or cutting one-liner. (A sample, a pastiche of Wilde: ‘Every woman wears her mother’s clothes. That’s her tragedy. No man does. That’s his.) One leaves the theatre sensing that Bennett’s greatest work was yet to come, but Evans’s valuable staging does offer this rarely performed play as strong an outing as one could imagine. Three of the best, then.
Forty Years On at Chichester Festival Theatre until 20th May 2017. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.