Thomas Hughes’ novel of 1857 is as seminal as Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby in exposing scholastic malpractice in the 19th century. The book was designed to celebrate the schoolmastership of educational great Dr Thomas Arnold, whose spell as Headmaster of Rugby School reformed practice at the School and drove out much dispassionate cruelty and abuse, not least in the teaching body. The text has been used in a string of film adaptations, most notably the 1951 and 2004 versions, the latter starring Stephen Fry and launching the career of a young Alex Pettyfer.
Capable young actors, slightly miscast and inhibited by the set, telling a seminal story of school life
This stage adaptation by Rebecca Vines, who also directs the piece, largely succeeds in translating the story from stage to page, although the language of the time (“vicious spiteful cur”) is preferable to some of the modern expletives that seem to have worked their way in. It tells the tale of Tom Brown, a plucky youngster sent away to Rugby School, where he makes a string of friends but is bullied both directly and vicariously by the notorious Flashman. We see episodes of the original tale strung together to show the horrors encountered by heroic young Tom, and the outcome of his attempts to fight back against a bully from the social elite.
Talking Shadows is a youth theatre group formed of young actors from a number of schools. The nature of such a company makes free casting very challenging, and this proves problematic with this piece. Oliver Hooper makes a charming and likeable Tom, and he is clearly a fine, engaging actor, but he is one of the older ones and towers above Flashman, played by Connor May, who finds it difficult to evoke the chill of the book’s villain. This does make it harder to feel sympathy for Tom, presented as a much younger boy in the book, when for example he is caught in a boxing match with the notorious bully. Flashman's physical and social authority is critical to the story but this is not really achieved in these portrayals. Hughes gives us a Boy’s Own hero at the peak of Empire in Head Boy Brooke. Hugh Norbury is another talented and elegant actor, but he too is compromised in this particular part by being so obviously younger than the other leads. Tate Franz gives the standout performance as East but arguably this is made easier for him as his relative age befits his character in the play. The broader company make a solid ensemble, although I would like to see greater stillness from them in key moments such as Flashman’s opening monologue, where there is too much distraction from our first taste of such a key character.
The staging makes use of a collection of black boxes to give shape and definition to these scenes. In the opening stages these are used well, particularly in a wonderful movement piece showing Tom’s journey to Rugby. Increasingly, however, the boxes act as a barrier to the flow of action, creating static scenes. There is a clearly defined stage space in this theatre, marked out prominently by thick white lines, but actors are frequently pushed onto the carpet beyond this by the on-stage clutter, their only alternative being static performances tucked in between the detritus. The whole of the Derby lottery, for example, takes place on the carpet at the back of the stage. At another point, sprawling on the same carpet, Tom’s foot catches a member of the audience by accident. This clumsiness makes it harder to follow the action and build pictures that resonate visually. It also represents poor discipline and use of space by young actors. Beyond these boxes, there is very little scenery and later scenes such as the roasting would benefit, for example, from some visual indication of fire.
There is good use of sound, with a scene-setting recording of a mother’s advice starting the show, and excellent use of songs such as “Leave Her, Johnny” to capture the tone and mood of the period. Costumes are elegant and appropriate to the time.
One of the most notorious moments in the book is Flashman’s abuse of Sally, using his higher social status to commit rape. This is initially handled well in this performance, with a powerful movement sequence creating strong imagery. The impact is diluted, however, by too much stage time and text being given to Sally after the event and this is frustrating, as it takes away from our initial well-crafted revulsion at the event. The play seeks to represent issues of bullying and abuse but ironically the worst case of bullying comes when the tiny Trevelyan is sent with a message to Tom and his friends, only to be ridiculed and abused for his proximity to Flashman. “We are the chosen ones” Tom and friends chant thereafter, sending confusing moral messages about maltreatment of the small and vulnerable.
Overall, a keen company of capable young actors, slightly miscast and inhibited by the set, telling a seminal story of school life.