“a floundering production that simply doesn’t know what it is”
Tom Brown’s School Days is a semi-autobiographical novel by Thomas Hughes, first published in 1857. This production is the latest in a long line of adaptations, and director Phil Wilmott has chosen to set it in WWII, presumably to shoehorn it into the Essential Classics season at the Union, which this year takes this war as its theme. The idea of the season, to quote the programme notes, is to present work ‘in which great writers of the past reflect on the issues we face today’. This seems a stretch for this particular piece. For starters, Hughes can in no way be described as a great writer, and secondly, the script that has been put together by the company (there is no accredited playwright) is thin and uninspiring; devoid of any intellectual or emotional gravitas. At its best it is well-worn pastiche, and at its worst a paeon to all that is wrong with British public school culture.
The plot (such as it is) is a simple one. A new boy – Tom Brown – joins Rugby School at a time when many of the masters are absent, serving in the war, and the old Head has come back from retirement. This Head – Dr. Arnold – wants to eradicate bullying in the school and produce boys who are fit to be the new generation of leaders of the country. Tom and his fellows face down the bullies, and many of them go on to serve in the same squadron, under their former Head Boy. Lest we forget, the programme notes helpfully remind us that these are the ‘upper class young men who’d go on to lead the armed forces to victory’. There is one woman in the play, the resourceful working class cook, who cheerfully helps our boys out when they use their fathers’ money to fund black market feasts for one another, and takes being called a ‘stupid woman’ by our hero on the chin. In Britain 2020, after the most divisive election there has been in decades, and one in which ‘the vast majority of the British people bewilderingly voted to continue to be governed by upper class millionaires’ (programme notes again), the uncritical way in which this story is presented leaves a deeply unpleasant taste in the mouth.
This is a floundering production that simply doesn’t know what it is. The staging – endless and bizarre use of direct address, and plenty of choreographed stage pictures – is pure musical theatre, but it isn’t a musical. And yet…. There are hymns of course, fitting the Rugby setting, but then there are two extraordinary and ill-judged bursts of song which tie in with neither plot nor period: a Jerry Lee Lewis style piano number, and a plaintive guitar solo. There are also jarring moments of melodramatic piano underscore throughout. Reuben Speed’s set looks good, and is well-designed for the space and Penn O’Gara’s period costumes also fit the bill. Unfortunately, the performances are uniformly flat and disconnected. Press Night stumbles aside, which are to be expected and are in no way problematic, this was a production in which not a single actor shone. In the rare high-stakes moments, there was simply no emotional connection in the performances. The words never took flight, and as such, the audience had no investment in the characters whatsoever. This was a thoroughly forgettable evening. Would that the stewardship of Boris and his chums could be similarly consigned to history’s wastepaper basket without consequence.
“a spectacularly over-the-top production and a monumentally good time”
Whilst originally a Broadway show (based on the novel by Anita Loos) starring Carol Channing, it’s Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s killer pairing in the iconic 1953 film adaptation that’s kept this story live and kicking in the musical canon. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’re sure to be familiar with the glorious fuchsia-scarlet clash in Miss Monroe’s absurdly decadent number, ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’. Much like most of Marilyn’s back-catalogue, the play’s plot isn’t quite besides the point, but it’s third to the big showstopper numbers, and whoever has the daunting task of filling her inimitable shoes.
Lorelai (Abigayle Honeywill), a small town girl with a penchant for diamonds, has her eye set on a sugar daddy to provide her a life-time supply of the sparkling little gems. When her deep-pocketed fiancé (Aaron Bannister-Davies) catches wind of her sordid past, she feels certain that he’ll break off their engagement, so she immediately goes in search of a wealthy replacement, with the help of her friend and ‘chaperone’, Dorothy (Eleanor Lakin).
Honeywill is a perfect Marilyn type: white blonde, strikingly beautiful and a small hip wag away from charming most anyone out of their life savings. Presumably, though, she doesn’t want to be accused of merely playing Marylin rather than the character herself, so in an act of defiance she’s taken on this Lina Lamont-type nasal squeal. Whilst it proves comic at times, it’s not sustainable, particularly when singing. Honeywill has a beautiful singing voice and she can’t resist giving it her all, but she ends up sounding schizophrenic, swapping between a bold, sometimes husky tone to an insufferable screech, and back again.
The principals are all perfectly cast. Lakin’s Dorothy is brilliantly mocking and tongue-in-cheek, and Freddie King, playing Henry Spofford, finds an endearing balance between being charmingly artless and just plain charming. The chorus is brimming with triple threats, and it seems they’ve been as carefully cast as the main characters.
With the amazing Sasha Regan once again directing, the production is quite spectacular. With such a small stage, and the accompanying piano (Henry Brennan) and drums taking up a good chunk of it, it seems dangerous to have so many high-kicking, split-leaping, almost gymnastic dance numbers with a cast of eighteen. But choreographer Zak Nemorin seems determined to present the high production value that this show deserves, regardless of whether the drummer gets disturbingly close to getting kicked in the face on several occasions.
Justin Williams has cleverly pared the set right back so at least there are no tables and chairs for the chorus to break their necks on. Instead, a scarlet red carpet runs dramatically down the back wall and all the way to the front, preparing us for the big number we all know and love. Unfortunately, ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ falls a little short when the time comes. The lighting (Hector Murray), though otherwise beautiful executed, on this occasion blacks out the red back-drop and simultaneously washes out Lorelei’s pink gown. The song itself is a little quiet and the only occasion during the entire production when I remember thinking the band could do with a couple of muted trumpets. This is the only disappointing number, and really only because the ‘53 version is so vivid.
What with the set not providing much atmosphere, the costumes (Penn O’Gara) certainly make up for it, with gorgeous silhouettes aplenty and fringe for days.
There’s an amazing amount of songs packed in (music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Leo Robin), and to ensure they’re all covered, the plot in the second half gets a little lost. But as I said, no-one’s here for a gripping twist, or an emotional think piece. We’re here for a spectacularly over-the-top production and a monumentally good time, and ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ delivers in spades.