TOM BROWN'S SCHOOL DAYS: London's Union Theatre
Brown (Hudson Brown) and East (Sam James Page): photo Mark Senior

Boasting a 14 strong cast of newly graduated drama students making their London debut as Rugby schoolboys and more experienced actors in the senior roles, Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days with musical arrangements by Ralph Warman, has shifted its timeline from the mid 19th century to the days of ration and war battles in 1941. This charming adaptation by Director Phil Willmot, focuses on the formative years of the young men of privileged class who were preparing for their role in the armed forces, to serve King and country as leaders, inspiring their men. As one of the Essential Classics Season to mark the 75th anniversary in May 2020 of VE Day, this presentation offers a respectful tribute to those young men who fought so bravely against tyranny.

Staying pretty close to the original, the setting is Rugby School, which was attended by Hughes as a young boy. The novel followed the experiences of young Tom Brown as he moved through his school years, making friendships, facing bullies, rebelling at times and desperately trying to maintain a strong moral code. This production likewise follows the trials and tribulations of the young schoolboy who is thrust into the traditions of the public school system and strives hard for acceptance whilst staying true to his own self.

As the play begins, to the harmony of voices of the young school boys, Dr Arnold, 'radical' headmaster newly appointed to the school, addresses the gathering with a stirring speech commending valour, honour and honesty. It is vital that his boys prepare for the leadership roles they will surely follow as officers in the war effort, leading their men and standing strongly as an inspiration to them. As such, his charges must always be honest if they wish to remain in this hallowed environment. And so it is essential that the code is followed: never to snitch, to retain comraderie, to see off bullies and to accept one's punishment if justly administered. Thus are the traditions of Rugby School. It is the more poignant, therefore, when young Brown is unjustly accused of not playing the game, of exposing the bullying of Flashman to Dr Arnold and thereby losing the esteem of his fellow pupils in the IVth. But never mind, all strengthens this youngster's resolve and shapes his character!

During the production there were some touching moments, not least of which was the singing of the boys who performed their hymns, war songs, some popular ditties of the time and even the odd shanty to the accompaniment of a single guitar of piano, or a capella. Their innocent renditions stood out sharply against the foreboding destiny that they would surely face and encouraged many a gulp from this reviewer.

Staging was perfectly in keeping with the style of the direction, with its  old fashioned wooden table serving as desk and bunk bed, cosy headmaster's study, cluttered dorm - all achieved on the small space of the Union Theatre and themselves taking many 'roles' as they adapted. With occasional swirling mists of smoke, it was never far from our thoughts that outside of these harboured walls was the world of violent bombing, fires and destruction that these young innocents would soon enter.

Much praise to the physicality of the piece. Using the whole space, the boys cavorted and sat about, fought and japed as young boys of yesteryear novels always did. It felt delightfully authentic and the enthusiasm of the cast drew in the audience to their antics.

An ensemble piece where all played to their strengths. Well done to the young Brown (Hudson Brown), East (Same James Page) and their fellow classmates, as well as the dastardly Flashman (Alex McKeon). Playing the well meaning but idealistic Dr Arnold was James Horne, who brought to his role an honest performance that convinced he had the school and the boys at heart; so too his deputy Grimstead, played with conviction by Toby Wynn-Davies who was ultimately won over to the new ways. Furthermore, the desperation and devastation of those who could not serve because of injuries incurred in the 'Great War' was terribly sad and portrayed honestly by Ralph Warman as Stebbings.

With its basic themes ever present, Willmot has shown that the sentiment is timeless and can resonate at whatever period it is read. Sure, we in the 21st century are more cynical but one cannot deny the honour and bravery of these young boys. This was a fitting and touching production, played movingly by its cast and presented thoughtfully and respectfully by its director and his creative team. They have certainly marked the 75 anniversary as a tribute in this excellent production.

Photography: Mark Senior

Running time: 1 hour 45 mins to include a short interval.


Season ticket offer: £50 to see all three plays of the Classic Season: Tom Brown's School Days, Blitz and Peace In Our Time. 

Union Theatre, Old Union Arches, 229 Union Street, London SE1OLR

Tickets for individual plays or season ticket: 020 7261 9876

Tom Brown's School Days is playing until 1 February 2020