Forty Years On – Review

Richard Wilson in Forty Years On. Images Johan Persson.

Michael Gambon had the right idea, deciding to quit the theatre because old age had robbed him of the ability to remember his lines.

Richard Wilson, now 80, has confessed that since a heart attack he, too, had been similarly afflicted.

So someone at Chichester Festival Theatre, or, indeed Wilson himself, needed to make a tough call and they’ve avoided the issue.

Chichester’s Festival 2017 season kicked off last night with a revival of Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On and, playing the headmaster, is Wilson, who has to read his lines on stage from his script.

On occasion he went off piste and managed brief interactions with his supportive and excellent ensemble, but largely he sat and read.

There were stumblings over lines, times when he forgot where he was and had to find his place, and quips fell flat because of their halting delivery, while other actors were clearly struggling to react to his performance.

This is the opening show by Chichester’s new management team, executive director Rachel Tackley and artistic director, Daniel Evans (who also sets out his stall by directing this production), and it could be that, legally, they had no option but to proceed with Richard Wilson in the lead.

But, as much as I sympathise with the actor and admire his determination to carry on, it just doesn’t work, and the show is much poorer for it.

Forty Years On was Bennett’s first major full-length play and, revisiting it nearly 50 years after it was written, it is showing its age. One could argue that it’s a precursor to The History Boys but the only thing they have in common is education.

“I’ve never liked the word education,” says the headmaster. “I prefer schooling.” It’s the sort of throwaway line that Richard Griffiths’ Hector may have said in The History Boys.

Set in Albion House boys’ school that nestles close to Chichester, in the South Downs, it is celebrating the end of term and the last day, before retirement, of its headmaster (Wilson).

Les Brotherston’s stunning set is evocative of traditional schools with its oak panelling and an impressive organ dominating the assembly hall. All that’s missing is the smell of boiled cabbage.

A wind of change is blowing and the school’s traditional end-of-term play, knocked together by Franklin, the reformist deputy head who is soon to be elevated, reveals Bennett’s report card on how England is progressing from the turn-of-the-century onwards.

And it’s painfully clear that the country would probably only get a C+ with the cryptic comment that we’ve all had at some time or other “Could do better.”

The allegorical drama is a hit or miss affair, chopping and changing from 1968 Sussex to 1940s London and England at the turn of the century.

The play-within-a-play comes in the form of comic sketches and musical vignettes, very much like the skits perfected in the writer’s Beyond The Fringe days.

None of the humour is laugh-out-loud funny but some of the more sober, satirical and thought-provoking dialogue, about generations of young boys lost to war, is still profoundly moving.

The rest of the main cast – Alan Cox as Franklin, Danny Lee Wynter as popular and rather effete teacher, Tempest (who does a very good impersonation of Downton’s Maggie Smith), Jenny Galloway’s robust matron and the prim Miss Nisbitt (Lucy Briers) – take various roles in the school play with the head occasionally interrupting to object to scenes or dialogue.

Lads from the local community have been drafted in to bulk out the assembly (and a very professional job they do too) with speaking roles given to “sixth-formers” and young actors Joe Idris Roberts, Thomas Bird and Michael Lin (the latter two delivering a splendid jazz number, Little Sir Echo, with a fabulous tap-dance routine).

Director Evans has included a quick, and unnecessarily political addendum, to the final scene with a clearly left-wing update about life in Britain since 1968 that is every bit as jaded and cynnical as Bennett’s earlier view.

In about 45 seconds he condemns any progress or improvement we may have made with images of Thatcher, three-day weeks, protests, strikes, Theresa May and more, ending with Brexit and the upcoming general election. I’m not sure how that will go down in leafy West Sussex.

Forty Years On runs in the Festival Theatre until May 20.

Review Rating
  • Forty Years On
3

Summary

Richard Wilson struggles with his dialogue in Chichester’s revival of Alan Bennett’s scholastic play, Forty Years On, which opens its Festival 2017 season.

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