‘I’ll save you yet,’ says the precocious Antony Sandel to the object of his desires, David Rogers. But it’s not as easy as he thinks. When they first meet, Tony is a talented young teenage choirboy at St Cecilia’s College in Oxford and David a car-racing undergraduate; in other words, the gap between them is far wider than the number of years alone suggests. By the time Tony inadvertently ends up threatening both their futures (thanks to some loose talk with journalists – some things never change, eh?), it’s just as bad. Their positions as school head boy and teacher make their slowly maturing physical trysts even less acceptable to society at large, the kind of betrayal of the teacher-pupil relationship that continues to generate public prurience to this day. And that’s even before you add in the small fact that, being set in the early-to-mid 1960s (the original novel, by Angus Stewart, was first published in 1968), homosexuality is still illegal.
To fit into the typical fringe hour-long slot, adaptor Glenn Chandler (who also directed the production) has necessarily been forced to pare down this notorious gay novel to an on-stage threesome. The forthright and cocky Tony Sandel is made a tad more likable thanks to Tom Cawte’s nuanced performance; the uptight David Rogers portrayed by Ryan Penny is endearingly fragile; and David’s old school and university friend Bruce Lang is played with a subdued Wildean demeanor by Calum Fleming. Bruce has a “knack of arriving at just the right time” to pull the breaks on proceedings and not just out of envy for his friend’s aptitude of finding love.
This staging by Boys of the Empire Productions is appropriately restrained. The stage is empty apart from a desk which doubles as both a chapel organ and hospital bed, a couple of chairs and a wooden bench which, upside down, doubles as a punt. This lack of distraction allows the audience to focus on what remains at the heart of the piece: a sensitively revealed romance between two young men in love. If that’s still controversial, 45 years after the book’s publication, you might wonder just how far we’ve really come.