Union Theatre – until 2 February 2020
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The Phil Willmott Company’s Essential Classics Season 2020, celebrating the 75th anniversary of V.E. Day, opens with a stirring adaptation of Tom Brown’s School Days. Set 100 years after the original novel, Thomas Hughes’ story doesn’t need much tweaking, as the traditions and unwritten rules of public schoolboys don’t evolve quickly.
Reuben Speed’s deceptively simple set captures the stuffy atmosphere of boarding school dorms and offices, and the cast’s glorious renditions of hymns and well-chosen early 20th century songs evokes a nostalgic glow and memories of school assemblies.
With most of the staff fighting in the war, Rugby’s masters are the men medically unfit to fight, or the walking wounded. The radical Dr Arnold has arrived as the new headmaster and his ideas don’t sit well with some of the staff, especially the raptor-like Grimstead (Toby Wynn-Davies). James Horne is stern and steely, but with a definite twinkle in his eye as Arnold, determined that the mistakes of the last war will never be repeated and on a mission to ensure that the boys leave the school morally fit to be leaders.
Unfortunately for new boy Tom Brown, this new ideal hasn’t affected the way in which Flashman and his cronies treat the younger boys, and Tom’s good-heartedness and refusal to comply with the bullies’ demands make him a prime target. Hudson Brown is delightful as Tom, wide-eyed and boisterously enthusiastic, and his 4th year pals are a real hoot when they are onstage together. Alex McKeon’s odious Flashman seems to be always lurking, watching for signs of weakness before he sets his cronies upon his victim with sneering viciousness. When Tom finally hits back, it’s hard not to jump up and cheer.
The violence is mostly offstage or happening behind a jostling group of boys, but this enhances the impact of such random cruelty, and Dr Arnold’s canings are wince inducingly convincing.
The theme of the school moulding boys into morally upright, fair and honest leaders with eternal bonds of friendship does elicit a few groans from the audience in today’s political climate, but the stiff upper lip goodness of the young boys is infectious, and there is lots of light comedy (mostly from Ursula Mohan’s hilarious salt-of-the-earth servant Sally) before we see the young men eventually leave school to fly, and probably die, together in the Battle of Britain. Phil Willmott has given this classic new life – a charming and dynamic start to the season.