The original 1982 West End production of Julian Mitchell’s play featured actors who have gone on to win four Oscars, be awarded two knighthoods (so far) and achieve worldwide star status. Therefore, part of the enjoyment in seeing this revival, which originated in Bath and Chichester last year and has already had a West End run, is picking out the stars of tomorrow. There could be several. Directed by Jeremy Herring, the play is a study of life in an English Public School for boys in the 1930s, its bullying, its brutality and its rigid adherence to traditions and the class system. Will Attenborough (newest member of the famous theatre dynasty) dominates the first half as Judd, a studious young man, focussed single-mindedly on gaining his scholarship to Cambridge, but contemptuous of the Upper Class and openly admiring Stalin and the Russian Revolution; Attenborough’s mature and sympathetic performance leaves us in no doubt as to why Judd is so respected by the other boys. This is a play which gains strength as it progresses and it is only in Act II that we realise the significance of Judd’s friendship with Guy Bennett (the name is a thin disguise for who this character is really meant to represent). Rob Callender begins by playing Guy as effete and frivolous, boasting of his sexual encounters with other boys, all of whom brush them off as “just a passing phase”. However, a boy’s suicide makes Guy realise that, for him, homosexuality is not passing, it is for real and forever. Callender’s performance captures this realisation perfectly and shows us Guy’s determination to stand strong against moves to punish him and make him an outcast. Guy may or may not share Judd’s idealistic view of Communism, but he sees it as a vehicle for gaining revenge against his persecutors. He smiles with pleasure at the prospect of both staying inside English society and, at the same time, undermining it through treason. Impressive sets of wood-panelled walls reflect the coldness and rigidity of the school and a strong supporting cast helps to throw fascinating light on one of the most notorious episodes in British post-War history. This production is riveting throughout.
Performance date: 16 July 2014