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Forty Years On review – Richard Wilson returns in Bennett’s satirical school play

Daniel Evans made such a success of running Sheffield Theatres that he deserves to be cut a bit of slack in the opening of his Chichester tenure. That is a polite way of saying that his revival of Alan Bennett’s 1968 state-of-the-nation comedy, while good in patches, is far from perfect: the staging is over-busy, strenuous attempts are made to fill in the historical gaps and the casting, in one crucial instance, is risky.

I still admire the play, which taps into Bennett’s particular vein of satirical nostalgia. We watch as staff and pupils of a school, symbolically named Albion House, mount a play – Speak for England, Arthur – that offers a portrait of life in the first half of the 20th century. This allows Bennett to offer a series of very funny set-piece parodies whose targets include TE Lawrence, the Bloomsburyites and the “snobbery-with-violence” brand of spy fiction. The device of framing the play as a literary-political second world war memoir also sanctions a vehement assault on the appeasement tactics of Neville Chamberlain. And behind the action lies a fierce battle between the school’s conservative headmaster and his progressive successor.

It is a complex play-within-a-play that requires the greatest possible clarity in the staging; instead, Evans fills the space with relentless activity. The use of 50 local schoolchildren as an onstage chorus may be communally admirable but creates a sense of clutter. More seriously, Evans lends each of Bennett’s sketches an extra-textual life instead of simply focusing on the words. Tthere is little gain, for instance, in treating the mercilessly exact parody of John Buchan fiction as if it were an inter-war black and white movie. While Lez Brotherston’s design helpfully includes sidescreens indicating which year we are in, the climactic visual summary of key events since 1968 – right up to the Daily Mail headline of “Crush the saboteurs” – struck me as gratuitous.

The play needs no such aid: it is, in the best sense, a period piece in which Bennett, showing a Britain torn between a tradition-bound past and an egalitarian future, astutely keeps a foot in each camp. While it’s a pleasure to see Richard Wilson back on stage after illness, bringing his familiar capacity for crusty indignation to the role of the headmaster, it doesn’t help the play’s momentum that he is obliged to read much of his part from a script. Alan Cox, however, is very good as his outward-looking successor, and there is strong support from Danny Lee Wynter, putting on a Maggie Smith voice for a Wildean pastiche, as a subversive teacher, and from Jenny Galloway as an amorously reminiscent matron. Tom Brady’s musical arrangements also give the songs a suitable, late-60s twist.

But, while there are many things to enjoy, you sense the sweat on Evans’s brow as he strives to suggest Bennett’s caustic cavalcade is still a play for today.