Tom Brown’s School Days
By Thomas Hughes adapted by Phil Willmott.
The Union Theatre, 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR to 2 February 2020.
Tues-Sat 7.30pm. Mat Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7261 9876.
Review: Wiliam Russell 8 January.
This bizarre adaptation of the famous tale of the schoolboy bullied by Flashman in the Rugby run by Thomas Arnold has been updated by Phil Willmott, who also directs, to just before the Battle of Britain with the boys apparently destined to save the day for King and Country. It is played with spirit by an impressive cast, although they are mostly a mite too old for teenagers, and Willmott having come up with a play with music consisting of school songs, popular ballads and hymns of the day, turn out to be rather good singers. They are easy on the eye, there is handsome set by Reuben Speed, and the films of the forties with their patriotic style have clearly influenced things. The question is, since this is part of three pieces to mark the 75th anniversary of D Day, is whether as a play for today it has anything much to say.
Willmott sees the recent General Election result when people elected to be governed by the product of the playing fields of Eton as adding something to the story. But these are the playing fields of Rugby under the enlightened Dr Arnold and while the boys grow up to join the Few they were not, as far as one can check, products of the public schools of England – certainly the two most famous, Guy Gibson and Douglas Bader, were nothing of the kind even if in the movies about them they talk terribly posh in the style of actors of the day. It is also horribly homoerotic although things never go beyond a warm embrace or a manly handshake. At times one wishes it would as that would have added some much needed zest to the goings on.
As the adults James Horne makes a superbly grizzled Arnold given the job because younger men have gone to war, Toby Wynn Davies is nicely nasty as the deputy who covets the job, and Ursula Mohan does a jolly comic servant straight out of a Noel Coward. She is gorgeously slutty and straght out of Albert Square. Odd to think I last saw her at the Union playing an impressive Queen Lear. A truly versatile lady. They are all more than capable of fleshing out their roles and do so impressively. As for the boys, as Tom Hudson Brown is a clean cut young lad with a fine voice, Sam James Page as East, his best friend, is nicely prickly and looks terrific in short trousers, while Alex Mckeon has all the attributes to be the ideal Flashman the bully, a force to be reckoned with even if he has a yellow streak a mile wide down his back and Mikko Juan is an appealing Head Boy Brook who ends up as the squadron leader of the flight in which Tom and East serve. As an ensemble the boys are terrific.
The play, the first in Wilmott’s season will be followed by a revival of Blitz, Lionel Bart’s East End musical about wartime gutsy cockneys facing up to the Nazi bombs, the one from which Noel Coward a possibly envious composer of musicals allegedly emerged on the first night “ humming the sets”, and Coward’s rarely performed Peace in Our Time about Britain under the Nazis not seen since 1947. Both should have curiosity value at least. I remember Blitz as an adequate musical with some jolly songs, great sets and a pleasant enough patriotic time passer so the revival is indeed of interest.
Perhaps we have just elected to be governed by the Old Etonian officer class yet again but whether Tom Brown’s Schooldays, even in this version, has anything to with that is dubious. The novel did set the scene for all those school stories from Gray Friars to Hogwarts with their bullies, fags and naive boy heroes standing up for what is right, but Willmott has ditched most of Hughes’ plot, Arnnold comes over as a distinctly inept reformer and the point of it all is far from clear.
But that said go for the cast. These young actors are well worth catching.
Brown: Hudson Brown.
East: Sam James Page.
Lofty: Joseph O’Gorman.
Spike: Jacob Seelochan.
Mopes: Oliver Humphries.
Winsteed: Joe Goodhead.
Brook: Mikko Juan.
Flashman: Alex McKeon.
Sneerwell: Hugh Tappin.
Crisher: jack Donald.
Dr Arnold: james Horne.
Grimstead: Toby Wynn Davies.
Stebbins: Ralph Warman.
Sally: Ursula Mohan.
Directior: Phil Wilmott.
Assistant Directoir: Alex Kirstukas.
Musical Director: Ralph Warman.
Fight Choreographer: Stephen Louis.
Designer: Reuben Speed.
Lighting Designer: Ben Bull.
Costume Designer: Penn O’Gara.
Production Photographs: Mark Senior.