I am inordinately fond of Forty Years On.  In only my second ever trip to London, my mother took me to see the original production the year I was fifteen and therefore readily able to identify with the serge-trousered schoolboys it features in their end-of-term entertainment to mark the retirement of a long-serving headmaster.

In those days, it was John Gielgud – now, in what I was hoping was a piece of inspired casting, it is national treasure Richard Wilson.  Unfortunately, Wilson suffered a heart attack in August last year from which he happily recovered but which robbed him of the ability to memorise lines. Perhaps because the production was sold so very quickly on his name above the title, and rather than give way to another actor, he has to read almost everything from a script.

The Sussex matrons who make up most of a Chichester audience are a loyal bunch, but also quick to judgement: there was a lot of tutting in the auditorium that he was ‘spoiling the show’ and some sniping that, possibly, things were already going downhill under new Artistic Director, Daniel Evans.  I’m reporting this – not agreeing with it – but it’s undeniable that Wilson’s insecurity in the part affects the rest of the cast and the pace of the performance.  Also, for a man who made something of a television career out if it, he simply isn’t irascible enough as the headmaster.

On the upside, there is a glorious set dominated by a full-scale church organ, and Evans’ master stroke is to recruit up to fifty local boys to fill out the school population, holding open auditions through the Youth Theatre.  This they do with tremendous verve, under the guidance of musical director Tom Brady, whether ranged in the choir stalls delivering beautiful harmonies, or muddied in rugger kit singing filthy songs.  Incidentally, the whole of ‘The Doggies’ Party’ deserves to be heard.

The ‘school play’ is a parodic examination of what it means to be British mostly through vignettes of events in the inter-war years.  I had hoped as an adult to now ‘get more’ out of these sketches, but while a spoof of Lady Bracknell’s interview with Jack Worthing remains amusing, and it’s still funny that two boys play eccentric Lady Ottoline Morrell like a vertical pantomime horse, the dialogues with Lytton Strachey or Virginia Woolf, and Alan Bennett’s tart observations about scarcely-remembered 1930s politicians Arthur Greenwood and Duff Cooper don’t hit home, even with a mature Chichester audience.

The rest of the school personnel feel a bit undercast, and I think Jenny Galloway as Matron and Lucy Briers as the wittering bursar Miss Nisbet are cast the wrong way round. Although both give good period performances Galloway could get much more out of Matron’s nonsensical homilies like ‘cabbage is bottled sunshine’ and ‘St Paul went blind on the road to Damascus because he went out without his wellies’. Alan Cox is capable as the head’s successor Franklin, but it’s difficult to forgive him for not being John Fortune (1984) or Paul Eddington (1968).

Chichester productions have a habit of trundling up to town with their casts more or less intact, but it’s harder to envision a London life for Forty Years On than it was for Gypsy or Sweeney Todd.

If it does, Daniel Evans may need to find Rowan Atkinson‘s phone number.


until May 20

Trivium 1: Alan Bennett took the surnames of the schoolboys from the dormitory lists of his University friend, later chat show host, Russell Harty who was at the time a housemaster at Giggleswick School.

Trivium 2: Richard Wilson is justly famous as Victor Meldrew but in the 1984 Chichester revival, Matron was played by Victor’s ‘wife’ Annette Crosbie.