Latin! or Tobacco and Boys

Tue 24th – Sat 28th January 2012

reviews

Olivier Butler

at 10:36 on 25th Jan 2012

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As a once 12-year-old blazer-clad English schoolboy, I felt an uncanny desire to apologise as Barnabas Iley-Williamson, playing the young schoolmaster Mr Clarke, hurled sarcastic abuse and school books at the audience. The extremely bright and witty production touches on such issues as the genitals of school-boys and the longing for a better, purer, more innocently academic life (themes one would readily expect from Stephen Fry), and made for a positively remarkable occasion.

Upon arriving you are invited take a seat on stage in simple mock classroom, an experience I highly recommend. The layout produced a good link between the body of the audience and the heart of the production, and it is a rare opportunity to see such an intimate performance even closer to hand. The only drawback of this is a feeling that the bulk of the audience members were somewhat neglected, there being only maybe 18 places on stage (the moral being turn to up early for the full experience).

Mr Iley-Williamson's character carries the bulk of the performance with due sincerity and boyish perversity, and to keep the dialogue as snappy as he did is a challenging task when a large part in rely to fictional calls from the class. His problem is that, with the level of the production and general performance as high as it is, the occasional lost word is all the more noticeable. Herbert Brookshaw as the aging deputy head of the school, Louis Fletcher, plays an unashamedly sinister part, and the pair do well to present non-overlapping forms of delightful perversity, even in the select sphere of unnerving schoolmasters. While Mr Brookshaw's role was the smaller of the two, his performance was polished to a shine, even adept at dealing with a pipe on stage, a very genuine touch. Yet, the eventual difficulty the play struggles with is the final sequence of monologues, which does become slightly repetitive given that the same approximate formulae has been used since the first act.

Mr Brookshaw's and Mr Williamson's smoking habits are just one example of the very authentic feel the play conjures, something built out of the interaction of actors' roles with the lighting, layout and props. With the exception of some lacklustre posters the production quality was flawless from start to finish, even pampering us with complementary Chelsea buns in the interval. This means that by the time the lights dim to focus on the very British emotional outpourings of Mr Clarke, the audience seemed immersed in both the sentiment of the speech, and the culture of the school. I fail to see how anyone could not understand a quintessentially 'English' education after that.

This play well exceeds the standards for student productions, and my criticism is aimed at the details that prevent it being a seamlessly professional production. I found Latin a thoroughly witty and surprisingly intimate journey into Chatham Park Preparatory School for Boys. The warmth and familiarity for a charming, very proper educational system that reeks pleasantly of 'The History Boys' is a delight, and I can't imagine many who would not enjoy it.

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Alex Fisher

at 13:52 on 25th Jan 2012

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0disagrees

The confined space of the Burton-Taylor Studio, the hard wooden benches and the over-powering stench of cigarettes – yes, ‘Latin! or Tobacco and Boys’ certainly creates an atmosphere. Executed and performed to a high level, this showing of Stephen Fry’s play is light, funny and thoroughly enjoyable, I would happily see it again.

Ostensibly, the play is simply a duologue between two school teachers – Mr Dominic Clarke (Barnabus Iley-Williamson) and Mr Herbert Brookshaw (Louis Fletcher). By seating members of the audience on the aforementioned wooden benches (one of which I was sitting on) the invisible boundary of the fourth wall slides. As a result, the idea of the duologue is questioned by the silent utterances of the audience who are configured as the naughty, loathsome, unhygienic schoolboys repeatedly admonished for their misuse of Latin. Iley-Williamson is nothing short of superb. His command of the stage is effortless, infinitely believable as the prep school teacher. His delivery evokes great pathos when needed, but is balanced by his ability to draw out the beautifully funny moments of the play. Having seen him powerfully portray Thomas More in ‘A Man for All Seasons’ at the end of last term, and after his brilliant performance here, he is definitely a name to keep an eye on.

Fletcher provided a good match to Iley-Williamson. His depiction of a late fifties, senior school master was highly convincing. His explanation of the merit system, which involved jumping on tables and putting the stage space to good use, may ostensibly seem out of character, but it was bizarrely credible. Moreover, the closing speech to the class and the reading of Clarke’s letter was particularly well executed in terms of pace and variation. My only criticism was Fletcher’s projection. Even sitting on the stage directly in front of him, it sometimes was a real struggle to hear what he was saying, but this is a problem that can be easily rectified.

Although this may be a small point, I loved the occasional difficulty that was had with the matches - despite it only happening twice, it really added to the “realism” of the play. Whilst I am sure they were unfortunate mistakes, it generated near Pinter-esque pauses heightening the tension and the drama at the ideal moment. The lighting also added to this, generating the required mood and guiding the focus of the audience. Also, the offering of Chelsea buns during the brief interlude was a delightful treat.

One may criticise the play for how it deals with the topic of child grooming. One group might believe that it should not be a concern of the stage whereas others may argue that if it was present in the play then it should be made the over-riding theme. ‘Latin!’ lies somewhere in the middle, for it talks about child grooming, yet our perception is set at a distance created by the jolly humour of the play and its exquisite verbosity. Much like Edward Albee’s ‘The Goat’, you find yourself laughing unexpectedly at taboo subjects and this is surely the brilliance of the script and the excellence of the actors’ delivery.

Not only was this the BT’s first show of Hilary Term, but also the first of 2012. Did the production set the standard for the rest of the year? It certainly did, and it’s rather high.

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