1918..1968..AND NOW.. ALAN BENNETT’S ENGLAND
In his 1994 diaries Alan Bennett described the funeral of a Dunkirk veteran in a village church. “crammed with the men who won the war. Young officers then, now in their sixties, good, solid, old-fashioned faces, never wavering, never doubting and singing their hearts out – “For all the Saints” “Immortal, Invisible”. It’s like Forty Years on – all that one loves and hates”.
This 1968 revue-style play, a tapestry of national memory and mockery, affectionate nostalgia and determined revolution , encapsulates exactly that conflict in the British heart. To revive it in a Brexit year, as we grasp more urgently the dangers of harking-back by the wrong people, is a canny if risky move by the theatre’s new leader Daniel Evans, who directs it himself with all the big-stage brio and playfulness he showed in Sheffield.
Risky, because it is hard to gauge how far the new generation will get its references to another era: schoolmasters uninhibited by childcare-correctness, Confirmation Classes, and legends like T.E.Lawrence and Sapper. On the other hand the WW1 centenary has re-sensitized us to both wars, so at least some history will resonate. For me, fifty years on the echoes were still all there. For newcomers , know that we become the parents and alumni watching, behind a huge posse of grey-uniformed boys, a frequently disrupted end of term play at imagined Sussex public-school, “Albion House”,: a metaphor for England itself. The retiring headmaster remembers starting on Armistice Day 1918, teaching boys who twenty years later fought in the second war. His successor-to-be the progressive Franklin has devised a series of scenes in which a posh 1940’s couple see out the second war with their old nanny in the basement of Claridge’s, remembering and lamenting their childhood Edwardian England which vanished in 1914, and their adult one which in 1945 was replaced by “a sergeant’s world, of the lay-by and the civic improvement scheme”.
So Franklin, Miss Nisbitt, Tempest and Matron and the boys zigzag through riotous sketches guyings of Wildean Edwardiana, Bloomsbury, John-Buchanesque “snobbery-with-violence”, and legendary 20c figures like Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell (strikingly depicted as a 10ft pantomime giantess by two puffing boys in a long frock). Between these, using diaries and poems, songs of the period and a tap-break and revealing political memoirs, the wars themselves are more soberly, movingly taken, still within the play’s odd beguiling structure. Bennett’s balance is artful: for every loopy tap-break, you get a Last Post from the gallery; for every mockery, a tribute. As the headmaster protests to Franklin “Memories are not shackles, they are garlands!”.
Except that, on the press night, that beloved line didn’t quite make it, for Richard Wilson, taking on at eighty the Headmaster’s very funny interventions and indignations, was not a hundred percent off-the-book, and made slightly more use than expected of his headmasterly stationery. Yet because he is representing just that stiff romantic old England a-dodder – it didn’t particularly matter. My own worry had been that I couldn’t able to shake off the ghost of Gielgud ’s gloriously querulous voice on the classic stage and radio version; but Wilson’s is a strong flavour himself, and I forgot it almost instantly. The odd fluff and fumble almost added to the charm.
And he is supported by not only a beautifully choreographed and flowingly vivid ensemble of boys, but by Alan Cox’s excellent Franklin and an utterly magnificent Jenny Galloway as Matron (ahh.. reminiscing about how fat legs didn’t put off men in her ATS wartime heyday). Lucy Briers is an nicely querulous Miss Nisbett and Danny Lee Wynter the master Tempest, particularly memorable as the pearl-draped, Wildean Aunt Cedelia in a bath-chair. Give that man more drag parts!
Lez Brotherston’s design excels itself too, with a full organ loft above and stone rolls of honour becoming screens with fragments of film or dates clarifying, as the play flits capriciously about, which year it is. So, even if it mystifies the young, it’s good to have it back after fifty years to watch it yearning back another fifty. The final For Sale notice on Albion House – five years before the 1973 vote – has a mischievous topicality, too:
“For Sale. A valuable site at the crossroads of the world. At present on offer to European clients. Outlying portions of the estate already disposed of to sitting tenants. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary”.
All that one loves and hates. God bless Alan Bennett.
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rating Four (the boys deserve no less)