BWW Review: TOM BROWN'S SCHOOL DAYS, Union Theatre
Many masters have been called up; Doctor Arnold has been called out of retirement; and Phil Willmott is calling to today's England from its past.
If it's a new year at the Union Theatre, it's a new season of Essential Classics, kicking off in 2020 with Willmott's adaptation of Tom Brown's School Days, set in the early stages of World War II (it's best not to think too hard about the timeline) but with its message aimed right between the eyes of an electorate that voted for Brexit not just once, but twice.
That unequivocal stance is one of the two best things about the show, even if the parallels are drawn with something of a heavy hand. The other is the beautiful singing, sometimes accompanied by piano, but often acapella - hymns, traditional songs and early 20th century standards rendered in clear voices. One can reach for barbershop or even The Beach Boys as comparators, but there's always an air of a lament about fresh faced boys' voices raised in harmony as the shadow of evil men's follies falls across them.
Performances are good too. There's something of the young David Tennant in Hudson Brown, our brave hero Tom, who fronts up against the bully Flashman (Alex McKeon, a bit "Tomorrow Belongs To Me") clinging to the Law of Omerta, even as he topples towards oblivion, sent there by his best frenemy, East (Sam James Page). There's fine work from James Horne as the benign headmaster, Arnold and from Toby Wynn-Davies as the resentful, but fundamentally decent, Grimstead. I'm not sure there's quite enough plot to sustain the full length of the show - but I suppose that's where the singing does a bit of the heavy lifting.
For all that's good (and it's plenty) one wonders whether we need another state of the nation piece set in a public school - it's over half a century since If after all. But Willmott's answer is eloquently put by the play's staging alone - 50 years on, what have we learned?
Tom Brown's School Days is at the Union Theatre until 2 February.
Photo Mark Senior