Review: Forty Years On - York Theatre Royal

The first full length stage play from Leeds born Alan Bennett, Forty Years On, doesn’t get to delight audiences all that often due to the size of the cast required. It is therefore great to see it produced in the York Theatre Royal’s current round configuration.

Audiences are welcomed in to the world of Albion House Public School on the last day of term, and the last day of the out going head master – and we are not mere onlookers as we are encouraged to stand and join in a rousing rendition of Jerusalem before proceedings can commence.

As the pupils and staff perform their traditional revue, in a less than traditional format thanks to head-in-waiting Franklin’s more modern direction compared to that of his predecessors, time frames shift from World War I, to the beginning of World War II, and of course the present time of the school.

In many ways this is not so much a linear play but more of a collection of sketches bound together by the overall narrative of war, Britain and Britishness. But whilst it jumps from one to another, it still remains coherent with the storyline progressing.

As this takes place, the headmaster tries to come to terms with his impending retirement and the fact that he is no longer in touch with the modern world – but then, who is? As the school revue descends in to areas he sees as less than good taste and not suitable for his sister who is (asleep) in the audience, he continues to battle with himself and his colleagues to maintain at least some level of decency and decorum.

The humour veers from clever and witty, to slightly crass via some deliberately terrible groaners as Bennett keeps the audience engaged.

Performances are strong throughout. From the professional cast to the young locals who make up the nose-picking school boys, there are wonderful performances wherever you turn.

That said, Robert Pickavance’s headmaster deserves special mention. After a wonderful performance as Hook in the theatre’s recent production of Peter Pan, Pickavance has stepped up yet another level with a memorising performance with fantastic comic timing as the headmaster goes from rambling monologues and prayers, to despair with the depravity taking place in his school.

The school hall set works well, though some may find the onstage stage difficult to see from some seats, and the action is punctuated with bursts of organ music which sits nicely with the Albion House setting.

There are many laugh-out-loud moments but this is not just a light hearted comedy so remember to take your brain with you; you’ll need it to keep up with it all. Buy your tickets now – or it may be another 40 years on before you get the chance again.

Forty Years On continues at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 15th October 2011.

Review by James Eaglesfield