40 Years On – Colchester Festival Theatre – 2017

‘Albert Prendergast’ supplied complete school uniform for the entire schoolboy cast for this production of the classic 1968 Alan Bennett play. Here are some pictures and a review written by Dominic Cavendish and originally published in the ‘Telegraph’ newspaper.

For sheer heroism, Richard Wilson – rushed to intensive care last August prior to an Edinburgh run with a Victor Meldrew show – deserves a medal (even a knighthood), for stepping back into the limelight. He’s playing the fossilised Headmaster in Forty Years On, presiding over an end-of-year, end-of-career revue performed by the boys and staff of Albion House, a past-it public school on the South Downs circa 1968.

John Gielgud took the role at its West End premiere. Although to the curmudgeonly, sententious manner born, Wilson can’t be said to reach Gielgudian heights, as he not so furtively consults his “papers” throughout – never mind One Foot in the Grave, we’re treated to One Eye on the Script. Yikes! Somehow, though, the pathos matches the often elegiac subject-matter, which looks back in a blend of nostalgia and eccentric drollery to two periods of national struggle that can still leave us at a loss for words.

There are notable shades of Bennett’s early calling-card Beyond the Fringe, fascinating foreshadowings too of The History Boys (as well as The Habit of Art) in his witty, skittish hop-scotch between the Edwardian era, the shaken inter-war years, and the dark hour, 40 years on, when the lamps went out over Europe again. Into the putatively educational mix is thrown everything from a glorious Wilde parody (Danny Lee Wynter channelling Maggie Smith as he plays a Lady Bracknell-like aristo) to a gag-crammed lecture on Lawrence of Arabia, with a dorm’s worth of puerile antics on top: tally-ho anthems, stirring hymns, mass fidgeting, furtive fondlings (earning teacherly reprimands), an invasion of rugger-buggers, even a virtuosic tap-dance.

Does it matter that some of it drags, and Bennett’s inexperience shows in the muddle as to whether a parental audience is being played to or not? No, under Evans’ capable direction – with an impressive design from Lez Brotherston (who delivers a fully functioning organ, amid much simulated oaky splendour), we get beautifully organised chaos; knobbly knees and youthful spirit, stooped shoulders and adult regret. I laughed a lot, I misted up a bit…t…. I don’t believe it – it works!

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