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Forty Years On review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘an assured, but busy revival’

Richard Wilson and the cast of Forty Years On at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Richard Wilson and the cast of Forty Years On at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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It’s nearly 50 years on from the premiere of Alan Bennett’s first West End play in 1968. Daniel Evans’ revival of Forty Years On is even more distanced from the time Bennett was already observing from afar.

There’s something genuinely radical in Bennett’s bold adoption of a schoolboy end-of-term revue to tell this tale of the impact of the Second World War.

Evans’ debut production as artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre is also a marker for new beginnings. A video at the end of the production, about the looming prospect of Brexit, makes for a timely, cautionary reminder of change to come, and brings the play even further into the here and now.

During his time at Sheffield Theatres, Evans turned the city into an essential theatrical destination, with a canny mix of new plays and musicals alongside some starry classic revivals.

At Chichester, he and his new executive director Rachel Tackley boldly launch their opening season with a subversive Trojan horse of a play. Though it has national treasure Alan Bennett  as its author, it presents a far from cozy portrait of Britain dealing with a deadly war.

Changes are in the air, too, at Albion House, the fictional public school where the play is set, and where the headmaster is retiring. But first he must preside over one last school play and his successor Franklin is allowing subversiveness a free rein in the historical pageant the boys are putting on.

Fielding a massive cast that includes a community ensemble of over 50 young actors, Evans handles things with an impressive assurance that makes it feel very authentically grounded. The eight young professional actors who lead the company are a knock-out.

It’s a pity the same can not be said of Richard Wilson as the headmaster, who is visibly reading his script from a lectern at many points, but still suffers regular stumbles. It fatally disrupts the flow of the show, and also wrongfoots Alan Cox as his successor.

More comic momentum is supplied by Danny Lee Wynter and Lucy Briers as the school’s other teachers, and Jenny Galloway as the formidable school matron.

Lez Brotherston’s school assembly hall set – dominated by a pipe organ – is suitably epic, providing plenty of room for this large cast to roam around.

Bennett would return to a schoolboy setting for his 2004 play The History Boys, but Forty Years On serves as an even more effective history lesson.

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Verdict
Daniel Evans’ debut production as Chichester artistic director is a busy revival of Alan Bennett's public school play
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