Another Country

Wed 13th – Sat 16th February 2013

reviews

Rory Platt

at 01:23 on 14th Feb 2013

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Julian Mitchell’s Another Country follows Angels in America in a term of unusually enjoyable Playhouse productions. The script isn’t showing the thirty-two years it’s put on since its first performance; funnier and lighter on its feet than you might imagine, it stomachs its rather worthy premise (students undergo a political and sexual awakening in a repressive 1930’s public school) with ease, and delivers a theatrical experience both thoroughly engrossing and entirely preaching-free.

The faux-Eton setting is wonderfully evinced by both the cast and the set, which even by the high standards of Playhouse productions was beautifully crafted – as the lights went up on a large window with ivy entwined around the panel frames, I felt the gushings of an inner interior-designer I didn’t know I had. Chapel bells and choir voices ring out in the distance, and it isn’t hard to feel yourself succumbing to the very romantic view of the place that you suspect the play is trying to destabilise. Indeed, one issue (though more with the script than the production) is the failure to establish a sense of the supposedly repressive and constricting environment that the central characters are rebelling against; with its cucumber sandwiches and jokes about Algernon Charles Swinburne’s predilection for whipping, it’s rather more 'Tom Brown’s Schooldays' than 'if...'.

The play struggles to find the drama in what amounts to a dispute over prefect appointments, and Guy Bennett’s slide into rebellion lacks nuance. Rooting his desire to fight the system wholly in his homosexuality oversimplifies the real-life story underpinning the drama, which comes off in the end as essentially Cool Hand Luke set at public school. Yet the witty dialogue and effective characterisation act as ample substitutes for the play you feel you’re supposed to be watching.

The performances all bear up a gloriously high standard across the board – whilst you might wonder how much of a stretch it is for some of the cast to portray late-adolescent public schoolboys, all do so convincingly and with considerable aplomb. Of particular merit are the central pairing of Peter Huhne as Bennett and Jo Allan as Tommy Judd; last seen coping admirably together as two Italian immigrants in Michaelmas’s A View From The Bridge, they clearly benefit from being more in their element here. Huhne’s slinky charm and Allan’s earnest wit establish them as a profoundly likeable centre of the play. The remainder, from Tim Gibson’s angst-ridden Barclay to Tom Lambert’s innocent Wharton, all succeed in perfectly embodying the characters they’re playing: such comprehensively talented casts are rare things in the world of student drama.

Lighting and sound were both used effectively and un-showily, and director Jessica Lazar should be commended for pulling together such a well-honed production, the first for the new company Screw the Looking Glass. All in all, a triumph; you’d be hard pressed to find a more polished and less po-faced Oxford student show. Though whoever fitted Tim Gibson’s waistcoat needs a firm talking to.

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Madeleine Stottor

at 07:58 on 14th Feb 2013

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More than thirty years ago, Julian Mitchell’s Another Country hit the West End, and was a huge success, winning an Olivier Award for Play of the Year and launching the careers of Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, and others. This February, Screw the Looking Glass productions revives the play to brilliant effect at the Oxford Playhouse, creating an intense, exciting, beautifully-staged piece of drama.

The play depicts a group of teenage boys as they struggle with life at an early 1930s public school. Loosely based on the juvenile experiences of Guy Burgess, later one of the ‘Cambridge Five’ spies and here renamed Guy Bennet, examining the impact of his homosexuality and exposure to Marxist thought, through his friend Judd, on his later career.

Peter Huhne provides the play’s standouts performance as Guy Bennet. Initially roguish and witty, his character development to bitter, injured lover is tragically believable, and Huhne is, as one of the funniest characters in the play, a pleasure to watch. Jo Allan’s Tommy Judd is also fantastic, and Tom Lambert’s nervous young Wharton is impeccable. The characterisation of Vaughan Cunningham (James Methven) felt, to me, a little overly camp, but this is a minor quibble in a cast this good.

The other wonderful thing about this production is its set design. The window at the back was a beautiful touch, and the posters running up the sides of the stage, depicting variously English classics like rugby at Twickenham and Russian socialism, worked as a beautiful framing device. The fourth-form library is realistically and professionally rendered. The costumes were, likewise, perfectly chosen and appropriate, and the play is visually a joy.

For Another Country’s first night, the huge Playhouse venue was almost sold-out, and rightly so. The play’s story is complex and moving, the kind of plot which makes you reconsider its questions long after the show has ended. My immediate thought might have been ‘God, public school looks awful’, but the bigger questions play on your mind: why would somebody betray their friends, betray their country? The public school environment works as a microcosmic criticism of English politics and power in the 1930s, insulated yet connected to much wider concerns. The play is relevant and contemporary despite being set eighty years ago; how much has England changed? Go and see Another Country: an interesting play, rendered professionally by an extremely talented cast of student actors.

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