Alan Bennett’s first stage play, 40 Years On is bravely tackled in the continuing ensemble season at York Theatre Royal. It is an entertaining yet demanding and overly long play which is rarely performed. The company succeed in bringing out the sparks of brilliance but are sometimes let down by a clumpy and awkward structure.
The play is set in 1968 at a boys’ school. The headmaster (Rob Pickavance) is due to retire and it’s also the school play and last assembly for some of the boys. What Damien Cruden’s production does excellently is create the world of Albion House School. The set is spot on, but even before entering the auditorium the cast of school boys wandered round the foyer handing out handmade programmes, and the show got off to a flying start when the audience was invited to join in with a roof-raising rendition of ‘Jerusalem’. The audience was also there to play a role, that of the parents and governors, and the interval refreshment trolley which some of us got to partake in was a nice and unexpected touch.
It was a shame that the script dictated that the school boys couldn’t be used more. For long periods they were stuck on the peripheries as the staff (Martin Barrass, Jonathan Race, Andrina Carroll and Sarah Quintrell) put on the end of term play. It was at these moments when the play often seemed to drag as we moved back and forth in history and more characters (invented and well known figures) were paraded around than you’ve had school dinners. Barrass in particular often descended into unnecessary slapstick but showed good range in his variety of personas (perhaps too much considering the ‘teachers’ are not supposed to be accomplished professional actors!).
40 Years On came alive when the 15 school boys took centre stage with songs, dances (all well choreographed by Jean Harvey) and general humorous antics. Nik Fenwick as Lord had great presence and a singing voice to match, and Dominic Allen of Belt Up Theatre had some lovely touches as a rather geeky lectern reader, but the whole group was terrific.
Yet it was the aforementioned Pickavance who was the standout star. His character of the headmaster is an absolute gem and carried with it the bulk of the play’s wit, honesty, nostalgia and energy, not to mention lines!
If anything, then, the play and not the production was at fault at times and Bennett himself has admitted its complicated and often confusing structure. Yet it’s still worth a watch, even if it is no History Boys.
40 Years On is playing at York Theatre Royal until 15th October, for more information and tickets, see the York Theatre Royal website.