TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS ☆☆☆
UNION THEATRE : LONDON
As one old Etonian Prime Minister follows so many others in assuming leadership of the UK it is timely to see one of the classic stories that built the myth of a worthy elite pumped out by Britain’s rarified private school system.
Inspired by the book Tom Brown’s School Days director Phil Wilmott brings us a theatrical version that is played with an earnest and absolute commitment to the period. There is no attempt at updating it with satire, no sly contemporary references, nothing that would not have been an authentic thought or action in the period. For the audience its almost jarring. Looking at something without a layer of cynicism today seems almost willfully blinkered. It is, however, seamlessly realized by the cast.
Tom (Hudson Brown) is the new boy at Rugby, a school dedicated to producing an officer class for the second world war. Trying to find his way in the established cliques and hierarchies he falls foul of both the bullies and the leaden codes of conduct. Unwritten rules trip him as he moves from outsider, to inner circle, and then back to ostracization. Along the way we are introduced to teachers and pupils whose past or future will be defined by the demands of war.
Despite a desperately pedestrian script the play autopsies some truths. It chronicles the means and methods of the bullying that can plague all male environments. It throws into stark relief that the idea that duty is a virtue in itself is now no longer unquestioned. Most interestingly it opens up the question of privilege as it grapples with the knowledge that these schoolboys are born to be officers who will lead men to battle whether they are worthy of it or not.
Amongst a cast that was almost as large as the audience in the small Union Theatre there were two stand out performances. Sally the cook (Ursula Mohan) was refreshing both in bringing in another sex and class but also as an actor who knows how to wrestle the opportunities out of a script with no poetry. Alex McKeon also drew the eye as surly bully Flashman who could intimidate his hapless prey simply by looming over them.
For a queer audience the stifling same sex environment is embellished by the hero worshipping crushes that the boys had towards other boys. Neither overplayed sexually or underplayed verbally it had emotional honesty without coy avoidance or getting lost on a tangent. It fitted well into a piece with no overt sexual story arcs.
Tom Browns School Days is a distinctly period piece. Set in a perfect time bubble It earnestly defies attempts to watch it through a contemporary eye and pushes the audience back to see it as it was originally intended. The challenge to a modern audience is whether they can view it as innocently as it requires.
Until February 2nd 2020 http://www.uniontheatre.biz/
Part of the Phil Willmott Company’s Essential Classics season 2020: V.E DAY – 75 YEARS ON.
Review by Andrew Hebden
Queerguru Correspondent Andrew Hebden is a MEDIA & CULTURAL STUDIES graduate spending his career between London, Beijing and NYC as an expert in media and social trends. As part of the expanding minimalist FIRE movement he recently returned to the UK and lives in Soho. He devotes as much time as possible to the movies, theatre and the gym. His favorite thing is to try something (anything) new every day.