A well-drilled group of some 50 local children (most from the community youth theatre) forms the highlight of this production at Chichester. The children play the pupils at a smart public school on the South Downs in England while the lead actors are young professionals. Amazingly the eight actors play 12 musical instruments between them and also sing.
It is the end of the school year and the Headmaster (Richard Wilson) is giving his farewell speech. Following this, some of the staff and boys will present their end of term play. This satirical play within a play takes up much of the action. Alan Bennett wrote the play in 1968 and it is also set in that year – which, incidentally, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the First World War. Director Daniel Evans tries to make each of the scenes in this little play make sense. Sometimes, however, the on-stage chorus of pupils leads to a rather cluttered presentation. There is some help in the use of lit-up screens at each side of the playing area telling where the action is taking place and in which year. At the end, we have a flashing quick sequence of key events since 1968 to today, thus bringing the comedy right up to the present.
The set designed by Les Brotherston, is particularly impressive with a huge working organ dominating the middle. The director manages to give us very amusing interpretations of these short scenes so we have Neville Chamberlain giving his, “about to meet Herr Hitler at Munich” speech and an amusing episode with the Bloomsbury literary set. There is a very funny Lady Ottoline Morrell which involves one boy standing on the shoulders of another in a flowing skirt to give us a very tall, somewhat strange Ottoline! We also see T.E. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell.
Daniel Evans (director) uses music most effectively throughout. From the 60 plus voices singing hymns far removed from the usual dirge sound of school assemblies, to a boy doing an energetic tap dance. The lead boys also sing a Capella most effectively.
Richard Wilson is the main draw for many people. Unfortunately, the 80-year-old actor is still recovering from his recent serious illness and needs to constantly read from the script. This results in some stumbles over missed words and he loses the rhythm of the play.
Review by Carlie Newman.
Chichester Festival Theatre. Until 20 May 2017
Box office 0124 3781 312