How many times did you get told as a child that “School Days Are The Best Days Of Your Life”? I’m sure for some people this is very true. Personally, I’m not so sure that I agree with the phrase. For most children and adolescents, the final few years are probably a horrendous time as their hormones kick into overdrive, they sit their various exams and have to make a life setting decision on what to study at university. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone to take but just imagine if, during this period, you had also found out that not only were you not going to be considered normal by society at large but were about to embark on a life that was totally illegal. That’s the fate awaiting some of the boys at quintessentially English public school Weatherhill in Glen Chandler’s play Lord Dismiss Us on a limited run at the Above the Stag Theatre.
1967 and, amongst much controversy, the government is debating the results of the Wolfenden Report. At exclusive public school Weatherhill, it is also a time of change. The school has a new headmaster in the shape of Philip Crabtree (David Mullen) and his devoutly religious wife Cecilia (Julie Teal). The Crabtree’s are violently homophobic and are determined that practices and relationships that occur between pupils at other public schools will not be going on at Weatherhill. Their initial concern is the number of unmarried masters in the school, particularly the English Master Eric Ashley (Lewis Allcock) about who they are deeply suspicious – not least because he produces the school play each year. Urged on by his wife, the Headmaster begins a witch-hunt to root out those partaking in unnatural practices, amongst the boys, starting with Head Boy John Steele (Matthew McCallion) and spreading throughout the senior echelons of the pupils. Nobody is above suspicion for the Crabtree’s. From Head of Priestly House, Carleton (Joshua Oakes-Rogers), his best friend Naylor (Jonathan Blaydon) to lowly fourth former Nicolas Allen (Joe Bence), everyone is suspect and by hook or by crook, the Headmaster and his wife are determined that homosexuality will have no place at Weatherhill.
Based on Michael Campbell’s book of the same name, Writer/Director Glenn Chandler’s staging of Lord Dismiss Us provides a fascinating glimpse not only into the world of the English public school system but also the prevailing thoughts of the ‘establishment’ about the subject of the partial decriminalisation of Homosexuality. The reality is that in English society at the time, homosexuals existed in pretty reasonable numbers. And as long as nobody talked about it or became too open, nobody in power really cared. True a lot of the middle/lower classes were caught and punished to the full extent of the law, but others were protected and never had to had face their actions in public. This hypocritical attitude is reflected, on a smaller scale, within the school, where everyone knows certain boys are more than friends but, as long as they aren’t doing it in the quad or in the aisle of the chapel, it’s not an issue. Even when the purge starts, certain boys are protected whilst others are thrown to the Crabtree’s without qualm. Given the potentially heavy nature of this interesting depiction of a stormy time in English political and social life, Glenn Chandler manages to inject a lot of very gentle humour into the narrative which stops it becoming overwhelming as we follow this year in the life of Weatherhill and those that inhabit it. I also loved the fact that it wasn’t until all the characters and the basic story were well established and the audience were invested in them, that we slowly became aware of which character’s story would be the dominant one. Brilliant writing by Glenn.
A first rate cast deliver the show, and I couldn’t mention the cast without bringing attention to David Mullen who plays two completely different roles in such a way that both are totally real individuals one of which I loved, the other I despised. Similarly a word about Joshua Oakes-Rogers as Terry Carleton. Initially when Carleton appears, he is a typical product of the English upper classes – effete, supercilious, arrogant and thoroughly unlikable – but as the story progressed, I couldn’t help but come to like and even admire him. And I can’t miss out Cecilia Crabtree who, is played as the truly wonderful – and not very subtle – power behind the headmaster’s gown, basically ruling the roost whilst deferring to her husband when needed. Protecting her friends until it gets to the point of making a final decision, Cecilia knows where her bread is buttered and will always make a decision that enables her to survive.
Before summing up, a quick word about David Shield’s set and costume design. Both were perfect. Walking into the auditorium we were confronted with a set which truly evoked a very traditional English public school – wood panelling, ancient stonework, crossed oars and shields on the walls. The boys were dressed in exemplary uniforms – complete with Prefect badges where appropriate – and the masters caps and gowns added the touch of realism. I suppose my one minor criticism was that Mrs Crabtree only seemed to have one outfit and while that is believable of the masters, she struck me as someone that would take a lot of pride in her appearance.
There are so many aspects of Lord Dismiss Us that I could examine. For example, the parental desire to mould children as little versions of themselves happy to continue the family heritage. Along with other sub-stories, this was a lot to fit into the just under two hours running time but the script handled it well. For me, proof of a great show is when I care enough to mentally speculate about the fate of the characters once the curtain falls and, for each one, I have my own pretty detailed ideas as to where they go from here.
Ultimately, Lord Dismiss Us delivers a superb slice of life in 1967 with the school going through its own version of the discussion in the country at large. This is a play that from a historical and theatrical perspective really delivers a powerful evening’s entertainment.
Review by Terry Eastham
Glenn Chandler, creator of the hit TV series Taggart, brings to the stage the first adaptation of Michael Campbell’s celebrated tragi-comedy novel set in an English boys’ boarding school in 1967. Parliament is about to amend the law, making homosexuality legal over the age of 21. The play marks the 50th anniversary of this important milestone in LGBT history.
Weatherhill is a quintessential English boarding school. Fourteen masters are unmarried, senior prefect Terry Carleton is in love with fourth year junior Nicky Allen, the school chaplain has paintings of naked youths on his wall, and English master Eric Ashley fights his own good fight with his inner demons. All are still criminals in the eyes of the law. Cue the arrival of the severely homophobic new head Philip Crabtree, and his devoutly religious wife, who between them mount a campaign to stamp out ‘moral degeneracy’ among the boys. The result is a reign of terror which has hilarious – and tragic – consequences for everyone.
Eric Ashley – LEWIS ALLCOCK
Nicholas Allen – JOE BENCE
Peter Naylor – JONATHAN BLAYDON
John Steele – MATTHEW McCALLION
Philip Crabtree and The Reverend Cyril Starr – DAVID MULLEN
Terry Carleton – JOSHUA OAKES-ROGERS
Cecilia Crabtree – JULIE TEAL
Lord Dismiss Us
Production Company: Boys of the Empire Productions
Above The Stag Theatre
Arch 17, Miles Street, London SW8 1RZ