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Perfect Plays; Perfect Performances
on 4 September 2008
The version of "Forty Years On" presented here is by far and away my favourite version. Sir John Gielgud is perfect as the retiring, slightly doddery Head Master and a young(ish) Alan Bennett is convincing as the junior master, Mr Tempest, who wishes he could put his hands on the choir's parts. Paul Eddington, Norah Nicholson and Dorothy Reynolds provide wonderful performances, as well.
It is a complex play, its play and sketches within a play needing some attention to keep up with. It is satirical but affectionate; dripping with nostalgia whilst, at the same time, gently lampooning old institutions and values. "The Breed": those perpetrators of snobbery with violence are dealt with scathingly but the passing of their times, full of certainties and standards seems regretted, although it is necessary. But it was ever thus: in the allegorical school, Albion House, as the Head Master, with his out of date standards ("standards always are out of date - that is what makes them standards") is replaced by the progressive Mr Franklin, so he rightly points out that Franklin, too, will one day be thought stuffy and old-fashioned.
The play is dense with jokes and allusions and it is a joy to be able to listen to it again and again on CD: particularly since the various scenes are indexed. There can be few better sources of one-liners, particularly in the Oscar Wilde pastiche, close to the start of the play. Although the recent "History Boys" has been seen as a return to a "school play", "Forty Years On" remains fairly unique for its Englishness, ambitions structure, its humour and its nostalgia. It is a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully performed.
The affecting monologue "A Woman of No Importance" at first seems as if it couldn't be further from the revue-like feel and ensemble playing of "Forty Years On" but there are similar themes of nostalgia and a slight sadness. Just as Albion House is now a fairly minor, unimportant Public School, so Margret Schofield is just another ordinary woman. A Woman of No Importance, as the title says, and yet, of course, everyone has their own little impact on the world and is important in their own way. Her ramblings are, of course, quite captivating, like a sort of aging, female Pooter.
Patricia Routledge's performance is very sensitive, convincing and affecting and may be the best thing that she has ever done: her Hyacinth Bucket and Vera Small characters are caricatures by comparison. And yet, for all the sadness and sensetivity, this is still a very funny and warm piece in the "Talking Heads" style that would be so successful for Alan Bennett.
A double bill to be savoured. Two gems from one of our greatest living playwrights; both superbly realised. The only downside is the way the plays are not each on their own CD, so that if you listen to "A Woman of No Importance" you are rudely jarred at the end by the opening bars of the introduction to "Forty Years On". If you wish to listen to "Forty Years On" you must skip through several tracks to do so and then change discs part way through. This is a distinct irritation and I considered deducting a star. That would be unfair to the playwright and the actors, however: these are essential recordings and the BBC's dodgy formatting cannot alter that.