Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester – until 20 May 2017
Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On is a curious play. His first outing as playwright (back in 1968) is charmingly eccentric, wonderfully witty and every bit a Bennett play. In fact it comes across as if the History Boys stumbled into a production of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and decided to join in the fun.
It’s an inspired choice for Daniel Evans to stamp his style onto the theatre as the new Artistic Director. His use of space, innovative staging and excellent use of ensemble are every bit as impressive as in the shows he staged in Sheffield. His use of Lez Brotherston’s stunning set is perfect!
The show-within-a-show structure of the play – on the Headmaster’s last day at a public school on the South Downs the faculty and pupils put on a sprawling play/revue that he is dragged into – often against his wishes.
This approach allows for some wonderful moments, Danny Lee Wynter’s hilarious Maggie Smith impersonation and his simpering Virginia Woolf fan are both delights – very much his own creations and yet at the same time wonderful nods to the fact that Bennett himself originally played the younger teacher.
Jenny Galloway jumps effortlessly from boozy night nurse to stiff upper lipped war supporter between stints as the straight talking school matron. Alan Cox, as the incoming Head of the school acts as the through line of the plays skits, displaying charm and timing but more often the deliverer of Bennett’s own philosophy on war and the loss of generations.
The whole is brought together by some terrific close-harmony singing and comedy moments from a core of young professionals playing the older boys (all of whom are superb, though Joe Idris-Roberts BBC presenter is particularly wonderful, seemingly stumbling straight out of a PG Wodehouse story). The sheer scale of the production is given to us courtesy of a mass of well-drilled and effective community performers, many of whom are part5 of the theatre’s tremendous youth productions.
The shining light of the script is of course the headmaster. A role played originally by John Gielgud and in a previous production in 1984 at Chichester by Paul Eddington (himself one of the senior boys in the 1968 original). Richard Wilson brings the necessary gravitas to the role and has a knack for flipping from whimsical remembrance to barking rage at the antics of the children in the blink of an eye. Sadly though this is all tempered by the fact that he is seldom without his script and is often clearly, and visibly, reading. That he can do so and still maintain his presence in the role is impressive, but at times brings down the momentum of the piece.
Nonetheless this is a thoroughly charming production and one perfectly suited as a first meeting between Evans and the Chichester audience.