Review of Forty Years On by Alan Bennett – the first play of the Chichester Festival 2017
It’s often interesting to compare the early reviews of theatrical productions by so-called professional critics with the later reaction of the actual consumers of the product, the audience as the run of that particular production beds in.
I had the pleasure of enjoying a matinee performance of ’Forty Years On’, Alan Bennett’s first stage play at the Chichester Festival Theatre last week. Naturally I had read some of the reviews and our party was in some trepidation as we took our seats. “The piece tastes stale”; “It doesn’t stand the test of time”; “the performance drags”; – just some of the comments that led to our concerns.
However, concerns were soon swept aside as the play commenced. The staging of Forty Years On is imaginative, rowdy, musical and chaotic – exactly as my memory of a public school in the late 1960s recalls! Bennett’s skill at mixing satire, laugh-out-loud humour and poignancy does stand the test of time, particularly appreciated by the large slice of ‘middle England’ that filled the auditorium.
The audience are treated as the parents of children attending a minor public school on the South Downs. We are at the school to enjoy a dramatic end-of-year revue, as an entertainment to celebrate the retirement of the headmaster, heroically played by Richard Wilson. The director of the revue, Mr Franklin, played by Alan Cox, is also going to be the new headmaster and has enjoyed using this chance to poke fun at the past and welcome the future.
Though Richard Wilson doesn’t quite reach the heights of John Gielgud, who took the role at its west end premiere back in 1968, his curmudgeonly, sententious character from One Foot In The Grave is more than sufficient to match the blend of nostalgia and humour Bennett has written. Wilson has stepped bravely back into the limelight and, yes, he does ‘consult his papers’ on several occasions, but this script support does not reduce the pathos of the play.
The main adult characters provide professional performances, none more ably than Danny Lee Wynter, as the aspiring younger teacher who provides a range of characters within the school revue, including a wonderful Oscar Wylde parody and a gag-crammed lecture on Lawrence of Arabia.
However, the community ensemble of more than fifty boys of varying age are the real stars of the show, all performing skilfully and many attending the Chichester Youth Theatre. With their help, with an impressive set design by lez Brotherston, and ably directed by Daniel Evans, we fully appreciate Bennett’s intention to show us the changing status of England in the late 1960s, which strangely rings true again today. I laughed, I found a tear in my eye, and, (I don’t believe it!) judging by the applause at the end, the critics were proved wrong, yet again!!
The production runs until 20th May.
Reviewed by Simon Dabell.
You can see more from Simon and Caught Red-handed Productions when they present two murder mystery evenings coming up in July and August.
Saturday 22nd July & Saturday 5th August, Mottistone Gardens