REVIEW: Forty Years On, Chichester Festival Theatre, until May 20.

40 Years On                  Photo by Johan Persson
40 Years On Photo by Johan Persson

There are moments of genuine hilarity; a huge community cast injects plenty of spirit as the wayward schoolboys; and the set – a school hall, complete with organ and memorials – is stunning.

But there’s no denying the fact that 40 years on, well 49 to be exact, Alan Bennett’s first play seems less an unjustly-neglected gem; more a footnote to all he’s gone on to do since.

Daniel Evans, Chichester’s new artistic director, and the cast wring all they can from it, but we wait in vain to see just why it is being dusted off now.

The theatre has made much of the play’s resonance in our current times; in truth, we are treated to an extended evening of 60s satire which remains very much in and of its own time.

Rather than making a compelling case for the revival, the production suggests why it hasn’t been done more often. This is Bennett juvenilia with the scatter-gun clever-cleverness of youth amid evocations of all sorts of people who are little more than just names to us now.

The year is 1968 and the headmaster is retiring, but not before the school puts on a play within the play for him – a collection of sketches loosely on the theme of the two wars which have gone before, laced with send-ups of the key participants and a host of socialites and literary types down the decades.

Lucy Briers, Alan Cox, Danny Lee Wynter and Jenny Galloway have plenty of fun along the way as they waltz through the pastiches; and there is some terrific a cappella singing and amusing choreography, plus a little rugby mayhem. Whether it all hangs together, however, is another matter.

Richard Wilson as the headmaster offers flashes of comic brilliance in his fulminations against the perceived indecencies enacted before his very eyes.

But Wilson, seldom without a script to hand or in sight, offers a curious of mix of reading and/or seeming not quite to remember his lines. His isn’t quite the central part you’d imagine if you haven’t seen the play before, but it certainly requires a firmness of foot he isn’t quite giving it now.

And then, almost conscious that it hasn’t convinced us of its relevance, the play gives us a succession of images to take us through to the present day. A more confident revival wouldn’t feel the need.

There is much to admire in this production, particularly from the community cast; but the play’s the thing, and it’s not helping anyone much here.

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