So what goes wrong? Well, mainly it’s the play. I remembered it as being entertaining, a pleasant evening out, if not as significant as it seemed when performed in 1968 by John Gielgud, Paul Eddington and Alan Bennett himself. Bennett’s observational comedy can be gloriously acute, but there seems to be a law of diminishing returns with many of his stage plays after the original keynote production. It’s happening with The History Boys now the superb Nicholas Hytner production is history (sorry, an evening at Albion House School induces feeble word-play), though not yet to The Madness of George III.
Some of the fault with 40 Years On lies with the production: when the Press Pack estimates the running time as 2 hours plus interval and the play, in fact, lasts 2 hours, 45 minutes, something’s not right somewhere. However, I can’t imagine what Damien Cruden could have done to resuscitate the play.
The action is set at end of term in Albion House School. The Headmaster is retiring, being succeeded by his deputy, Mr. Franklin, who is what passes in Bennett’s young fogeydom for a progressive. Mr. Franklin has organised the school play, a sort of pageant of Britain which combines smart wordplay with woolly satire, mild smut, academic references and the history of World War II as seen by four stock characters from British films – who was Andrina Carroll impersonating as the pluckily patriotic woman? Celia Johnson was never so strident.
40 Years On does not wear its age well 43 years on, but it’s equally limited in class terms. Did 1968 audiences identify with the lost world of Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lytton Strachey and Julian Grenfell any more than we do? Or did they savour the High Table gags: “Lord, take this cup away from me” (the Headmaster, having finished a cup of tea, to a boy called – wait for it! – Lord!) I’m pretty sure they would have delighted more in what I think of as “silly clergyman” sketches, as practised by Bennett in Beyond the Fringe – the confirmation class dealing with private parts, for instance.
I began this review intending to award three stars because of the noble efforts of the cast, but really I can’t. However, credit where it’s due. Headmaster Robert Pickavance panics superbly and does a nice line in moral outrage, though his moving recollections are a bit strained. Martin Barrass and Jonathan Race ably take on multiple personalities and the young actors playing the boys are excellent, especially the solo singer: a second verse of Charles Trenet’s Boum! would have been nice.