The Phil Willmott Company has always sought to find resonance in the plays that form its annual Essential Classics season.
This year is no exception as it commemorates the 75th anniversary of VE Day with works by Noel Coward, Lionel Bart and an adaptation of Thomas Hughes’ once popular novel Tom Brown’s School Days.
Willmott’s reworking transports the action from the 1830s to 1941, as Rugby School faces the challenges of World War Two. The adaptation maintains the trajectory of Hughes’ original story but the updating, to an institution that has barely changed over the centuries, feels a bit redundant.
It remains a lively production, featuring an wealth of strongly defined performances, including Hudson Brown as a spirited Tom, and Sam James Page as his school chum East. Both actors bring honesty and warmth to this rite of passage, their friendship battered by the moral codes that dominate the school.
Of the school staff, James Horne plays an earnest and kindly Dr Arnold, unfit for active duty but brandishing a new broom to sweep out historic bullying in the school.
Some deft direction from Willmott ensures there are moments of genuine excitement, particularly the episode where Brown thrashes the school bully Flashman, here played with subdued menace by Alex McKeon.
The narrative may thin out along the way but Willmott succeeds in bringing out Britain’s ingrained, if unhealthy, relationship with class and privilege.