Reviewed on 5th May 2017
Forty Years Later by Alan Bennett, running at the Chichester Festival Theatre is an interesting production on many levels and given the playwright in question there is no surprise the production asks a lot of questions. The story is complicated and the ambitious structure of jumping between times is something that does makes sense once all the cards are laid at the table yet to get there I went from confused to distracted and outright bored. Two of those feelings I can forgive yet to be bored in a production is something I don’t know I can forgive.
The story itself contains three main paths and through these paths the deeper meaning of Alan Bennett comes through at the end. The first path follows the Headmaster of Albion House in 1968 and in his last day as Headmaster he must participate in the school play which his successor Franklin directs. The school play itself contains two branches to follow, the first follows a posh couple through the Second World War called Hugh and Moggie. The second branch follows the glorious Edwardian era leading up to the awful First World War told in a variety of ways including memories and through these three branches the trunk of Bennett’s subtext becomes clear. The old guard and the old world must accept that the new world is coming and accept it but the old world had value and by ignoring this England and Great Britain would lose something that couldn’t be lost.
The production works very hard to convey this clearly and precisely as possible to keep track of these three stories that Bennett crafts with serious moments and comedy and in many ways, it succeeds and flourishes particularly in the second act but what can’t be ignored is when this doesn’t work which can be found in the first act. There must be a very fine balance between comedy and drama for both to be enjoyed and successful yet the first half leans far too heavily on long serious monologues that are too easy to get lost in and above all else bored, this is made worse as comedy works in this production on the most part that is well delivered. From the beginning as the Headmaster walks in to the assembly hall seriousness is asserted and as the Headmaster goes through his speech comedy begins to blend wonderfully and shines through which makes it worse that the rest of the first act can’t achieve this.
Many critics seem to home in on Richard Wilson as a weak or fragile headmaster and due to his reliance on reading from script I’m tempted to agree with them but as the play’s antics begin to ramp up Wilson’s performance becomes more commanding which I enjoyed seeing. Jenny Galloway who plays Matron equally deserves credit for a commanding and funny character in Matron and Moggie, the boys themselves deliver wonderful performances particularly in their musical talent. Music features heavily inside Forty Years Later with 35 different pieces being present inside that MD Tom Brady tries to use to help the audience differentiate between the different time periods yet this message gets lost in translation more times than not but the talent the boys show in executing all this music content is very remarkable. As a composer and musician giving an actor a song can be worrying and can make your heart sink when they’re not that great however the boys of Forty Years Later are certainly great with live musicians on stage to five part harmony executed perfectly.
Technically Forty Years has a mixed bag with the set working for what it needs to do but the organ feels overbearing at times which is disappointing given the calibre of technical teams that go through the Festival Theatre. Fortunately however, I get to praise the Lighting Designer (Mark Henderson) and Sound Designer (Emma Laxton) for their collaborative work with the use of the AV effects at the end of the first half but especially the second half. The exposition of the effect used in the first half means when the same effect is used in the second half it can breathe and develop fully giving a very clear indication of Alan Bennett’s subtext for the audience to ponder on as the play ends and they leave for normal life.
Overall this production deserves praise for trying very hard to make the hard to understand story and sub text of Bennett’s work shine through for the audience to easily understand and enjoy which the second act does a lot to work towards however by trying hard they have made it more difficult in a lot of areas to see through the play into the heart Bennett creates which is a shame. Boredom is hard to forgive and I don’t fully forgive Forty Years Later for this sin but as a creator and composer that works very hard to help and make the listener understand what I want or to ask the questions I want them it allows me to see the good the creatives wanted to put in this production which sadly hasn’t worked out.
Star Rating: 3/5