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Review: Forty Years OnCatherine Martin
Never let it be said that the Hampstead Players lack ambition. As if putting on a towering Shakespearian tragedy, a madcap Ben Jonson comedy, and a complex J.B. Priestly thriller weren’t challenge enough, the Players rounded out 2016 with a fourth production: a rehearsed reading of Alan Bennett Forty Years On.
Forty Years On is, in many ways, a difficult play. A bawdy comedy on its surface, it also provides a stream of social commentary that wry, bitter, and affectionate by turns. Using the framing device of a pageant put on by the boys at a fictional public school, Bennett traces the arc of the twentieth century from the languid salad days of the Edwardian period to the oily dumpster fire that was the Second World War, and through to the then-contemporary world of the 1960s. The play gently lampoons the famous figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and all the breathless legends that had since grown up around them. Forced into a recitation of history they don’t really understand or care about, the schoolboys (and sometimes their teachers!) gleefully mangle historical facts, turn real-life explorers and intelligence operatives into something out of a Boys Own Adventure novel, and mix up D.H. and T.E. Lawrence in some... unfortunate ways. But even as the audience is laughing along, Bennet also manages to convey a real nostalgia for a bygone era, far away from what the play calls our "crass-builded, class-bloated, green-belted world".
Director Stephen Clarke ably assisted by Shereen Abdallah fielded a highly talented cast to take on this multi-layered play. Bill Fry played the hilariously dry, highly traditional headmaster, with Geoff Prutton skilfully bringing to life two very different characters in his double performance as both the dour and intense Bill Franklin (the embodiment of the more progressive ideas about education that the Headmaster fears will replace his own, and also the main straight man for the schoolboys antics) and Hugh, an MP during the Second World War, who provided a great sendup of the period’s obsession with keeping a stiff upper lip. Jacqueline Leitch was very sympathetic as Hugh wife Moggie, and Bonnie Taylor was a tremendous amount of fun, playing both Hugh’s ditzy childhood nurse and the school flirtatious matron.
The actors playing the schoolboys brought an infectious energy to the production, especially with their no-holds-barred renditions of the play goofy, raunchy songs. Special mention has to go to Natasha Blumenthal, Dorothy Jenkins, and Hampstead Players newcomer Isabeau Popp, who pulled off a very Shakespearian turn: all three women were playing teenaged boys who, during the historical pageant within the play, were portraying women. To convey those numerous layers is a challenge, and all three succeeded, with delightful results. As their classmates, Simon May, Nicki Siddall, and Shereen Abdallah were believable and engaging. Jonathan Murray shone as the judge during the mock trial sequence, and Harlequin showed off his impressive versatility as an actor, moving from a realistically drawn modern-day schoolteacher to a larger-than-life historical adventurer, complete with jaunty goggles. Malcolm Stern added the finishing touch to the ensemble with his pitch-perfect portrayals of both Chamberlain and Churchill.
Jane Mayfield’s striking costumes captured the whimsical view of the Edwardian golden age as seen through the eyes of schoolchildren forty years on, and were also very effective in making the different time periods stand out from one another visually, a tricky and important balance for a narrative that moves backwards and forwards in time so frequently. All in all, a talent-packed production of one of Bennett ‘s most interesting works.