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Forty Years On (Susan Elkin reviews)

Photo by Johan Persson

What is education for? Is it a way of putting ideas into people’s heads or a system for reinforcing the rigid status quo? It’s classic Bennett territory and his first full-length play, dating from 1968 presents a challenging confrontation between the reactionary and the progressive although of course the issues are far from black and white.

We are just forty years on from the end of World War One. The traditional (unchanged in many decades) boys’ school atmosphere with organ loft, lecterns, and desks which whizz on and off stage is so well evoked by Lez Brotherston’s set and the well sung (in harmony) evocative hymns that you can almost smell the floor polish and the chalk. The very well directed and choreographed community ensemble of school boys adds a lot of authenticity and makes imaginative use of the CFT’s big playing area.

At the heart of the play is the retiring headmaster – one of the best theatre roles of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Richard Wilson really runs with it: strangled heightened RP, every vowel distorted, every consonant spat out to the accompanying click of loose dentures. Be-gowned and in mortarboard, he dictatorially represents pre-war insular values. The tension between him and his deputy Franklin, about to become headmaster (Alan Cox – very accomplished) is nicely caught as the central dramatic thrust. He will, as Wilson’s character observes tartly soon abolish corporal punishment, games and the cadet force because that’s “what liberal teachers do.”

Meanwhile Franklin is mounting an an end of term play which, very episodically and in no particular order, recounts the twentieth century history of both Britain and the school. Whenever it strays towards something the headmaster disapproves sexually or ideologically, he stops it thereby arresting progress towards a more enlightened future.

The whole concept is hugely ambitious. And although many of the play-within-a-play episodes are very funny (Danny Lee Wynter hamming up Oscar Wilde and Michael Lin’s tap dance, for example) the general effect is pretty bitty. Yes, as we sail through first war tableaux. Virginia Woolf, Ottoline Morrell, TE Lawrence and much more we are meant to marvel (I suppose) at the advantageous breadth of a really freed up education. Actually it comes across as a busy production of a busy play which would benefit from being a bit calmer.

Music, as so often with Bennett, is crucial to the action and there’s a lot of live music played on stage which certainly contributes to entertainment value.

The production is an undeniably enjoyable piece of theatre although there is a sense that its director Daniel Evans in his first season as artistic director at Chichester may be trying just a tad too hard. And his blatantly political ending – (nearly) fifty years on from Forty Years On, as it were – is cheaply cheesy.

 First published by Sardines
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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