10 Jan

BY Thomas Hughes

At the Union Theatre.

Tom Brown’s Schooldays is a book by lawyer, Thomas Hughes published in the early nineteenth century. It was somewhat autobiographical taken from his own experiences of how the way upper class scholboys were brought up at Rugby School.
Phil Wilmott at the Union in his 2020 series of plays called “Essential Classics” begins the season with this early book but has adapted it into a later period in order to highlight the British response to the first world war.
To create the musical background he has used the work of musical director Ralph Warman to reproduce the harmonies, hymns and wartime popular songs to be sung by the music teacher and the boys in the show. Warman is a specialist in harmony and the barber shop business, so he handles the singers extremely well and himself plays the music teacher at Rugby School.
So this is the kind of place where our Tory government boys were brought up. The place is more or less run by the hateful bully Flashman – the sixth former, who roasts children on the fire and throws them out of windows. The Headmaster is Dr Arnold who has come out of retirement in order to release some of the other teachers. Dr Arnold knew Tom’s father in WW1 when he won medals for bravery. He has one strict rule. Always tell the truth. Unfortunately the boys have also a rule ‘Never tell on each other.” This means that Flashman can get away with murder and the Headmaster never knows about it but beats poor Tom for not revealing where he gets his injuries. It seems at Public Schools you are taught to keep secrets – and lie – at a very early age.
However it will be no secret to say that the young boys turned out well, defeated Flashman and all joined the Airforce in time for the Battle of Britain to the chorus of ‘I vow to Thee my Country’ etc.
I cannot pretend it works as a piece of literature, but the audience – mostly young girls of course – seem to enjoy the production and give screams of delight about the singing.
The boys all do their parts well including Hudson Brown as the innocent Brown, Alex McKeon perfectly cast as the evil but charismatic Flashman and Toby Wynn-Davies plays the severe, grumpy master Grimstead
I also very much liked Mikko Juan as Brook, the sixth former who stood up for the boys and had to deliver the final speech which he did with passion and clarity.
Well choreographed fight scene by Stephen Louis, set design by Reuben Speed and costume design by Penn OCara all do their job. .
Under Phil Wilmott’s direction the actors all work well with a very special performance by Ursula Mohan as the Eccentric housekeeper Sally. The only female in the cast.
An interesting evening in which the underdogs do rather better here than in the recent election.
Production is by Sasha Regan of the Union Theatre.

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