A musical adaptation of Tom Brown’s School Days at the Union Theatre has some moments, and performances, to treasure
“Just don’t get caught”
It is now the fifth year that the Phil Willmott Company’s themed series of Essential Classics has taken over the Union Theatre and this year’s season takes on the mantle of V.E. Day, 75 Years On, looking at Britain and WWII through the lens of Noël Coward, musical theatre and this opening production of Tom Brown’s School Days.
Full disclosure, I have to admit to knowing basically nothing about Tom Brown…, Thomas Hughes’ novels and its subsequent adaptations never having figured in my childhood. So the fact that Willmott’s new version moves the action from the 1830s to the 1940s has no impact on my expectations, though it has raised an eyebrow or three from those to whom I’ve mentioned it.
Willmott’s justification lies in wanting to examine the role of public schools in forming the officer classes, and how such institutions might have coped when depleted by so many of their men serving. But I’m not 100% sure that it is a hugely revelatory approach in that respect – the case of undiagnosed PTSD is particularly fudged – at its heart this is (and remains) a tale of upper class schoolboy japes.
And interspersed with some beautiful arrangements of a wide variety of songs (effective musical direction from Ralph Warman), it is playful and intermittently powerful, as it looks at cultures of omertà and bullying alongside snaffling roast potatoes and cake. Hudson Brown and Sam James Page impress as Tom and his sometime pal East, while Mikko Juan and Jacob Seelochan stand out among their classmates. Of the adults, Ursula Mohan delivers a comic masterclass as kindly cook Sally.