First Night Review – Latin! or Tobacco and Boys ***

Art & Lit Stage

Latin! or Tobacco and Boys is a play by Stephen Fry set in the fictional Chartham Preparatory School. Although lacking in some aspects, Manywhere Productions  is successful in transporting the audience back to school, specifically to the Latin lessons led by Mr Clarke, ensuring they remain amused at all times.

In a neat piece of staging, some of the audience are invited to sit on benches onstage, becoming the pupils stuck in Mr Clarke’s Latin class: exercise books are handed out to the audience members as they inadvertently become the targets of his wickedly droll verbal abuse: Barnabas Iley-Williamson was extremely effective in playing out the witty dialogue and keeping spirits up. The consistently funny performances of Barnabas Iley-Williamson and Louis Fletcher, who play schoolmasters Mr Dominic Clarke and Mr Herbert Brookshaw, soon managed to thaw the audience.

In his non-sequitur explanation of the merit and demerit system, Louis Fletcher achieved many moments of laughter from the audience, but he did not match Iley-Williamson in sustaining the animated mood. Struggling with projection, there was no middle ground when it came to his vocal and physical expression: it seemed he could only go from the manic highs of jumping on desks to the extreme lows of being barely audible. The effortless humour of the script is perhaps a hindrance at times, because it allows the actors to rely on it too much and become complacent; but it might just be the stress of opening night.

The lighting was at times a bit puzzling with certain choices that were unnecessary and annoying, such as a few too many blackouts and superfluous dimming. The only time the dimming of the lights seemed to be effective was when Mr Clarke confesses his secret relationship with the 15 year old Cartwright. The gravity of the subject of a teacher-pupil affair is handled well by Iley-Williamson’s Mr Clarke, as he explains himself through a longing for his boyhood and his lifelong sense of disbelonging.

Instead of an interval, the audience were drawn further back into the world of school by the replacement of break-time: sounds of the playground accompanied the delicious distribution of Chelsea buns. When Iley-Williamson’s Mr Clarke reads out the class’ Latin exam results with comical attacks on each pupil, it was another warm reminder of schooldays long gone – a point that describes the whole play.  Nostalgia for the long-gone days of school was successfully created in this production and brought a smile to one’s face that it was hard to keep off.

3 stars

Latin! or Tobacco and Boys is on at the Burton Taylor Studio this week from Wednesday until Saturday at 7.30pm, tickets £6 (£5 concessions)

For the trailer, please follow the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoHK6B04LXM

PHOTO/Adam Levy